Friday, January 4, 2019

Personality, understanding, and anxiety as the driver of cultural evolution

This is another excerpt from David Hays, The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1995). This is from Chapter 5, “Politics, Cognition, and Personality”, section 5.4, “Personality and Understanding”. You might well wonder, as I did, what these topics have to do with technology. Hays’s reply, more or less: Why not? That is, he was taking a comprehensive view of the history of technology, but why not, in this chapter, use this comprehensive view of technology as an opportunity to look around the corner at other matters of interest, like governance and cognition more generally.

So that’s what he did.

In this section he argues that anxiety is what drives cultural evolution. It’s a powerful suggestion. I also believe it, but it’s not clear to me what we need to do to make a strong argument. I devoted a fair amount of energy to characterizing anxiety at the neural level in Beethoven’s Anvil (pp. 86 ff.) Note that I have a fair number of posts on the topic of anxiety.

* * * * *

Life is hard. Life is hard because it is lived in brains that strive always to understand, and often fail to understand, both the world and themselves. Our brains are the most complex devices known. The workings of cognition, emotion, and volition are scarcely understood at all even now. We do not know enough to guide parents and teachers, eliminate crime and the use of drugs, or achieve universal and lasting peace.

The psychobiological consequence of failure to understand is often fear, anxiety, anger, hostility, and hatred. These states are unpleasant and disruptive. They disrupt thought, and they disrupt society.

The fundamental significance of cultural evolution, in my opinion, is that the human capacity for understanding has grown. The striving was there from the beginning; gradually, over some 50,000 years, the striving has come to be satisfied more fully:
"Kroeber, who is by no means an evolutionist, suggests three criteria for measuring progress: "the atrophy of magic based on psychopathology; the decline of infantile obsession with the outstanding physiological events of human life; and the persistent tendency of technology and science to grow accumulatively (Kroeber, 1948: 304)." (Quoted from Julian Stewart, Theory of Culture Change, p. 14)
In rank 1, psychotic visions are treated with great respect. Too much attention is given to "blood and death and decay". These are indications that the understanding is unable to cope with the emotions of ordinary life.

Alfred L. Kroeber, who may be the greatest American anthropologist of the century, published a book called _Anthropology_ from which his three points are quoted.

The same Peace Corps volunteer I quoted above describes an event that illustrates the manifestation of anxiety in a culture not far up the growth curve from rank 1 to rank 2:
I awoke at one o'clock in the morning to horrible wailing and moaning. All the Tuaregs I live with were up, too. Umuna, one of the Bouzoo women, was making all this noise, writhing around on the ground beside one of the Tuareg tents. She claimed that she was 'invaded' by a bad spirit sent to her by her great-grandmother.

None of the others were concerned. They told me it was an odd time for spirits to be possessing people, in the middle of the Ramadan, a holy month. I was assured that she would be all right. I was glad to have so many experts on possession; had it been left to me, I would have thought she was seriously ill, perhaps dying. After fifteen minutes of carrying on, Umuna was fine. Interesting how the old animist beliefs coexist with Islam. (_Washington Spectator_, Jan 1, 1990, p. 1)
The Bouzoos, he explains, were "slaves of the Tuareg until very recently," having been taken in raids southward. The Bouzoos still live about as before. This Peace Corps volunteer also saw sex magic for sale, and healing of a headache by laying on of hands and chanting verses from the Koran.

In reading to prepare to write this book, I have learned that the wheel was used for ritual over many years before it was put to use in war and, still later, work. The motivation for improvement of astronomical instruments in the late Middle Ages was to obtain measurements accurate enough for _astrology_. Critics wrote that even if the dubious doctrines of astrology were valid, the measurements were not close enough for their predictions to be meaningful. So they set out to make their instruments better, and all kinds of instrumentation followed from this beginning. (That from White, MRTe*). Metals were used for ornaments very early – before any practical use?
In its original manifestation the compass was a divi- nation, or future-predicting, instrument made of lode- stone, which is naturally magnetic." (George Basalla, p. 172; in BIBLNOTE*)
I suspect that we could get many further examples, up into the growth curve from rank 2 to rank 3.

In fact, someone in the future may look back on psychoanalysis and remark that its origin was in parapsychology – dreams were interpreted first for divination, second for diagnosis of pathology.

Here is my first point: The driving force behind progress in social organization, government, technology, science, and art is the need to control anxiety, to satisfy the brain's striving for understanding.

To take a political example: In the origin of government, is the key problem why men choose to follow leaders, or how men succeed in making themselves into leaders? [Not a sexist formulation; just the way things happened.] For most of my life, I took for granted the first answer. Recently I recognized the second problem and adopted it. Ethnographies (culture reports) from hunting-and-gathering societies show absolute egalitarianism. But more: They show an absolute unwillingness to rise above one's fellows in any respect whatsoever.

Here and there we find a clue as to the kind of child-rearing practices (sometimes brutal) that produce such adults.

Since the earliest community leaders were war leaders, who gradually came to exercise some authority between wars, perhaps the answer to the key question is this: The first leaders draw their ability to accept the responsibility of leadership from success in war, from religious experience, and from innate genius or special accidents of handling in early childhood.

And my second point: At each rank, and excepting the few persons of extraordinary talent, a person's capacity for understanding is limited to analytic systems of quite specific logical structure. When rank shifts upward, a new system appears that transcends the old. The new system can rationalize situations, both internal and external, that were beyond the logical capacity of the old system. Understanding fails less often, and the negative states of fear, anxiety, hostility, etc. arise less often. As Kroeber put it, there is less concern "with the gratification of the ego" (KrAn* p. 301). The person of higher rank has a stronger character.

This means, among other things, that a higher rank can solve more kinds of social problems without resorting to (a) withdrawal, (b) fighting, or (c) submission.

But technology, art, science, and social-political-economic organization feed on each other. A favorable change in one makes possible changes – sometimes favorable – in all the rest.

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