Wanna be the smartest person in the room? Good start
24 March 2018 21:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Andrew Miller

Chucking our faeces around

  • Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.
When we debate or argue on Facebook and Twitter we revert to a presumed rationality. We believe we are conflicted in the realm of ideas. But basically, we’re bashing horns like randy bucks in the bush.

In the midst of serious group tension, male chimps will touch or “heft” each other’s testicles. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan explain in their book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, that ancient Hebrews and Romans would do the same thing upon concluding a treaty, or testifying at a tribunal. Indeed, the root of the words “testify” and “testimony” is the Latin word testis.

Humans have achieved their species dominance through rational behaviour. Our ability to perceive future consequences to immediate actions – and to moderate our behaviour accordingly – has given rise to automobiles, houses, office blocks, cellphones and Facebook pages. Living in the shadows of these achievements, we thus presume that we are primarily rational; that our daily thoughts and social interactions are guided and controlled by our analytical brains, and that it is the other animals who operate on instinct.

But despite our enormous rational accomplishments, the reality, as many thinkers and scientists have noted through the years, is that we are far closer to the apes, and to other animals, and even plants, than we are able to admit, or understand.

The similarities start with the DNA and genetic design that all plants and animals share and range through to the very structure of our thoughts. Apes (who we easily write off as mere beasts) understand and articulate the very same risk principals we do. To wit: “You’re putting your balls on the line here buddy.”

All of which leads me to question whether we, the Twittering classes, are actually guided by the light of our own enlightened intellectual rationality, as we like to believe... or if we are actually clicking and commenting and tweeting according to a far more base, primal instinct.

At the simplest level, Internet technologies practically support a universal human addiction to confirmation bias. We like to believe we form our opinions based on the facts at hand, but much (most?) of time we are cherry-picking facts (real or not, proven or not) that confirm an existing belief. We then share this belief and its associated narratives with our friends and virtual community members, who hold similar views to us. Facts that oppose our existing beliefs... well, we don’t really see those at all. We filter them out, without thinking. And of course the algorithms that drive search engines and social media also filter them out for us – we are shown content the web gods know we will like. (There is a litany of accessible literature on the subject of our decision making biases. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is just one recent example, and a quick Google for “heuristics and biases” demonstrates that the average human’s understanding of the drivers of behaviour is very sketchy indeed).

It’s hard to think of an environment more suited to the confirmation bias than social media. We scroll at lightning speed through the content we cite and share, pausing briefly over the bits we fancy like bumble bees on a purple flower. We post facts and articles we find interesting but don’t really understand and haven’t properly thought about, and we quote Orwell and Biko and Jesus Christ for motivation, often without ever actually reading what they wrote, or thought, in full.  

We know all this of course. We are not blind to our own virtual weirdness. But when things go south and we are pulled into an online fight, we all seem to revert to an indignant presumed rationality.

When we fight/debate online (and often in the real world as well), we focus on the opponent’s history, religious belief, language, personal and geographic background, musical taste and so forth. Most often, as the debate struggles to a messy and unresolved ending, we are able to write the opponent off as someone from a different “culture” – a different time and space. It makes sense to us, given the apparent culture clash, that the issue will never be resolved. We decide that “they” are just too different to “us”.

But what if this culture clash didn’t have much to do with culture at all? What if it was hard-coded into our genes? There is much evidence to suggest that, in evolutionary terms, cultural differences are simply the way humans, all puffed up in the frontal cortex, rationalise a physiological reality that sees us form small groups and fight against each other because we don’t know how – on a genetic level – to stop.

The small-group-of-angry-people strategy harks back thousands of years, to when we really were struggling for survival, as a species. In this environment smallish, insular breeding groups – always ready to fight other groups – were the best way to ensure the propagation of the so-called selfish gene. Regular sparks of random genetic material from outside the group were essential for genetic health and vibrancy, of course – hence the illicit love affairs that have been taking place in bushes and backstage corners for all of history. 

We are happy to assume that conflict between animals (apes, lions, beavers, bats and rabbits) is a matter of compulsive instinct. But when we’re on Facebook or Twitter (or in the pub, for that matter) we don’t see this instinct in ourselves. We believe we are conflicted in the realm of ideas. We seldom consider that we are bashing horns in exactly the same manner as randy bucks in the bush. 

Our mutual attempt to progress to new levels of “democratic” social interaction might not, if one looks at the issue from this perspective, actually have as much to do with the things we humans love to discuss and fight about as we think. Do ideas really cause wars? Or do we war because we are compelled to, with ideas and ideologies forming a tangible part of the battle itself? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground, but there is certainly a case to be made that our true fight for a better future and way of living may be going on at surprisingly deep levels... evolutionary levels we can barely comprehend, let alone manipulate.

In a series of lab experiments (also detailed in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, p.117), macaque monkeys were able to feed only if they chose to pull a chain that would administer an electric shock to a cell mate – who they could see being fried through a one way mirror. No jolt to the mate, no food. In the experiments, the majority of the monkeys chose to starve rather than torture their kin. In one experiment, only 13% chose to shock their colleagues, while a full 87% refused point blank. Monkeys who themselves had been shocked were even less likely to pull the chain, and social status and rank had little bearing on who would and who wouldn’t. Given what we see around us and what we know about our own history (the Belgians in the Congo, the British and the slave trade, the Nazis, Stalin, the Rwandan genocide etc.) it’s hard to imagine humans put through the same experiment coming out with numbers able to challenge the macaques.

It’s odd to think that even that thing we call “humanity” – the tendency toward empathy for our kin – may not belong exclusively to humans at all. That the behaviours we believe are a result of a uniquely complex interaction between pumping human hearts and clever human heads may actually just be the things of raw animal instinct. That even when we make those noble philosophical choices, we may not be nearly as remarkable for them as we assume. 

We think we’re right and they’re wrong.

We think we’re thinking.

But it’s quite possible that what we’re really doing is throwing our shit at each other, through the wires of cages we built around ourselves. DM   

  • Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller
    Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

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