A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, March 23, 2012

When Things Go Wrong

When things go wrong people act badly.  If people are not to act badly, then the most basic foundations of life and order must not go wrong [1]. I don’t see what is so hard to understand about this rule.  Perhaps stated more opaquely it would be clearer! When the range of events exceed the normal range of either the instinctual capacities or integrated experiences of an organism it generally acts badly.  At some level all organisms so afflicted  “know” that they are out of their depth and thus devolve into a condition of fear.  Actions motivated out of fear are mainly just ways to maintain some kind of motion and to, perhaps, carve out a little space from which to gather more appropriate information and then to produce a more appropriate response, but this is only ever successful by accident; by its very design it is not problem solving.  Fear is not supposed to be a platform for living a life.

Well, things have been going wrong: population stress; adaptive failure of our economic system [2]; fragmentation of the experience of species’ life to such an extent that most humans have no available route to, or even recognition of the need to, live in harmony with their biology; not one in a hundred humans would live for more than two months without the vast and growing economic and physical infrastructure that is also a cancer on the very fabric of the life sustaining biophysical space – and many of us are beginning to realize it. 

Of course, there are more detailed ‘goings wrong’; how could it be otherwise?  Nation ‘A’ steps on the figurative toes of nation ‘B’.  People who are wallowing in the great piles of wealth swept up by the vast ill-winds of our distorted and distorting economic systems “naturally” assume that they “earned it” and should have more.  That very attractive lady (or man) next to you (in the bus, subway, crowded street, office) dangerously weakens the sense of home and hearth.  Such a list could be endless, which is why it is important to realize the preeminence of our more foundational troubles; I am far from the first person to point this out, though in our fear we constantly forget it.

But when things go wrong for humans, we adapt to those things; it is our adaptive biology and capacity to take the “going wrong” and find a way to use it.  Necessity is the mother of invention: for most organisms invention is a long evolutionary process carried out over many generations; for humans, invention is a very different, often rapid, process mediated by imagination, social integration and technical facility, not DNA.  This has worked wonderfully as long as what was going wrong was coming from the biophysical environment and not created entirely by our own actions; it worked well when the environment was both the immediate guide and sovereign.

Our situation today is different: the vast majority of our reactions are to our own previous action.  Imagine a willful, intelligent and ignorant child guided only by its own thoughts – ignorant of its ignorance – assuming that its skillfulness with detail equated to brilliance of substance; just think of how far it could go… and the trouble it could get into.  Understand, this is how humanity has proceeded, especially, in the last few thousand years of our brief existence as the present species.

And as in a sort of ‘bible story’, the child appears to have killed off (but, really they have only stepped out of the room) its parents and rather suddenly climbed and swum and run wantonly into a condition that it doesn’t understand – does not possess the tools to even realize how fully it doesn’t comprehend.  Though, unlike a bible story, the “parents” are not the bible’s God, moved by the rules silly humans have, in their ignorance, written; no, the parents are the Gorgon, the Kraken, Ruaumoko, Asintmah, the Hero Twins and a thousand more human attempts to give the ultimately incomprehensible power of nature personification. [3]

The ultimate power of nature has not been vanquished by either our technology or our imagings of its vanquishing.  We have simply ceased to see and to hear, caught up in our climbing, swimming and running; making up stories of our beauty, our power, our necessity; telling the stories more and more loudly as our ‘going wrong’ more and more trips us up in our increasingly frantic activities.  So of course, in the end we behave badly.

This is the reality that confronts us: a vast institutional structure increasingly devoted to behaving badly in response to the failure of our species to maintain a viable relationship with the essential conditions of life.

Beyond the short list above, more basic things are ‘gone wrong’; consider these most foundational two:

1) Human communities are best served by having a heterogeneous collection of types: risk takers, fearful people, ADHD and related types, stolid plodders, certain types of “madmen and mad women” including psychopaths, classical conservatives, classical liberals, the selfish and the generous, “adult” grown ups and childlike grownups and more.  This gives a ‘natural’ community a vastly greater range of comprehension and action than an individual, family or homogenous community.  Such a community functions on the mutual dependency of all members and the intuitive and learned understanding that all types and combinations of types have their moment.  We don’t do this anymore.

Our “communities” devote themselves to homogeneity. The result is increasingly powerful, parochial and inappropriate responses to nature’s and society’s complexities.  The faith community denies itself the benefits of the “faithless.”  The science community denies itself the benefits of fully engaging the financial community, and vice versa.  The power elite community is not restrained by an integration with communities of labor. The ‘salt of the earth’ communities don’t regularly and meaningfully engage the intellectual elite. Our communities may try to use each other, but seem to largely ignore comprehending each other.

2) Infants, be they chimp, gorilla or human, are born into the world with essentially the same biological expectations; that is, the programmed readiness to respond to the instinctually accepting behaviors of its conspecifics. Typically that means being held for a year and feed on demand by a mother; then held for the next year by aunts, sibs and some adult males.  Some species differences begin to show during this time; chimps and gorillas are developmentally ahead of human infants and begin to explore, humans expect to get a little more holding and feeding, but soon enough expand their range of interest.  The whole structure and economy of the primate community is in major part devoted to the process of getting the infant to effective integrated adulthood.  We don’t do this anymore.  A society primarily devoted to the satisfaction and pleasures of its adults is doomed.

If the pattern of experiences that form the human adult typically produce someone that remains unfinished or even damaged in comparison to being raised in the most effective biologically/socially complete manner, then the whole organization and function of society will suffer.  The evidence is overwhelming: from studies of specific behaviors following families for generations to Harlow’s wire mother monkey studies. It is clear that how we raise, inform and educate our children determines the qualities expressed in our societies, and that there is a powerful momentum to both destructive and salutary habits.

We have become a collection of homogeneous “communities” of unfinished “adults”, incompetent to raise and educate our human young.  And much of what we attempt to organize into comprehensible patterns of modern life are really just the consequential bad behaviors of this great ‘gone wrong’.  There may still be enough of us to begin to set our course aright, but we must first see the issues clearly and apply our energies to gathering and growing humans who are complete enough, who have the potential to deal with the biophysical realities of those bad behaviors rather than perpetuating them.

[1] When things go wrong everything acts badly! Whether it’s the dog in a recent essay on this site biting its rescuer, a broken radiator hose on a car ruining the engine or distortions in systems of exchange trapping people in poverty, loss of the stable designs that underlie expected order create turmoil and failure to deliver both material and patterns of action upon which successfully functioning order depend.

[2] By ‘adaptive failure of the economic system’ I don’t mean that the GDP to debt ratio is unsustainable or that the insurance industry is dysfunctional; I mean that the summed economic activity violates ecological principles that both form and allow life on this planet.

[3] The Middle Eastern desert God (all various forms) is the attempt to give human powers supernatural personification, thus the incredible distortions and vast proportion given to vengeance, empathy, violence and compassion in the personifications.  For the most part none of these exist in nature in any way like we have come to accept and expect them to be part of human society; in this lies important clues.


ron said...

hhhhmmmm... I assume you're postulating from a Western, or even narrower, USA perspective?

Still true, but I wonder if evolution will be done with the technological imperative (with all it's unintended consequences obesity, living too long et al) and and in it's place, "simpler" more biological attuned human societies will prevail?

Or, are hom sapians genetically programmed to self destruct?

Cheers, and keep writing.

James Keye said...


Thanks for dropping by.

I am, of course, writing from a western and especially US perspective, but I definitely intend a more planet-wide sense for this piece. There are certainly differences around the world in how children are raised and in the homogeneity of communities with some places and peoples approaching biological appropriateness; unfortunately, accumulations of power and wealth – a consequence of ‘going wrong’ – are not associated with them.

One might say, and I do, that living well in specieshood doesn’t in any natural way require wealth-power and is, rather, diminished by it. But, wealth-power becomes important in fending off the abuse of wealth-power… and thus the game is on.

There is no way to approach our major concerns directly: armies must be met with armies, corporations must be met with corporations (organized corporate like power), distorted “adult” humans must be met with opposing distortions. However, each and every human comes into the world ready to be a fully functioning member of the species and only requires the proper “soil.” It is not for me to say how a significant number of well raised and community organized humans would act in the present world, but that is the place were we must begin for there to be any possibility of a future for the species (and many other species). This is the one place where there is still significant power among “the people” if they understood it.

My argument is that the evolution of a new adaptive process, the CSO, is running its course. The consciousness order is a very powerful information manipulating device and also uninhibited by homeostatic controls and so will, as would any uninhibited adaptation, move as far and as deep as possible. One of the things that makes the CSO so powerful is that it is not in genetic control – it doesn’t have to have its information selections run through the DNA/protein nexus with its living order limitations – so we are not strictly ‘genetically’ programmed to fail, but, like the first organism of any type with an early form of a powerful adaptation, we are in a necessary process of rapid change.

James Keye said...
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