Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Superiority Illusion

One consequence of total honesty with ourselves and with others is the discovery that none of us is superior to anyone else when the entirety of our lives and long-term experience is taken into account. The only sense in which we are ever “better” is in our adaptation to a specific set of circumstances; but if those circumstances change, as they inevitably will, then someone else may be better adapted than we are. It is the reality of changing conditions which makes our cooperation with each other critical, since the presently stronger can help the presently weaker to survive and eventually return the favor when their positions are reversed.

If we value our holding a privileged position over other people, then we will seek conditions where we have an advantage, and try to maintain them for as long as possible. If by chance we have also spent most of our lives in such conditions, we may be deluded into thinking we are intrinsically superior to those who haven’t; and when conditions change we may vilify the better adapted as enemies trying to cheat us of our “rightful” place in the world.

Technology, psychology, and education are excellent tools for controlling the environment and enabling more people to survive and thrive over time. They have been so successful that the natural challenges to the superiority illusion have been attenuated enough for it to grow, manifesting most strongly in the groups of people who can marshal those tools most effectively. When we should be using these tools to improve our entire population’s chances of survival, we are enabling the delusional among us to reduce those chances.

As we reach the limits of technology due to our inescapable depletion of critical resources, whether now or years from now, reality will be forced on all of us, and it is imperative that we have enough diversity left in our population to have a chance that some of us will be able to adapt to the new circumstances. The best way to do this is to adopt a cultural imperative to constantly find and test our core assumptions about ourselves and our environment, adopt a set of values that incorporates the reality that emerges, and honestly share the results of this effort with everyone we interact with.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Looking True

There are at least three ways we can present ourselves to the rest of the world. We can “look good” by hiding or disguising anything that doesn’t match our perception of what’s positive about ourselves (where “positive” is defined by our values). Doing the exact opposite, we can “look bad” by displaying only the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Third, we can “look true”: enable others to perceive us exactly as we are. In reality, each of us tends to be somewhere in the spectrum between these options, depending on a number of factors, including: our perception of ourselves; how we want others to respond to us; and our ability to effectively communicate, which determines how we are actually perceived, regardless of our intentions.

If we believe we are something we are not, then we will almost inevitably be frustrated in presenting ourselves. Inaccurate self-perception is often based on assumptions we make about the world beginning in childhood, many of them taught by the people closest to us, beginning with our parents. Self awareness, built on identifying and testing our most fundamental beliefs, is therefore one of the most important things any of us can do.

Controlling how people see us can be, and often is, purposeful. Beginning with when we are babies, we expect people to treat us in certain ways, and their perception of us has a lot to do with how they do so. Our reasons can vary from avoiding conflict to acquiring something. We may even want to help everyone live their lives fully.

There are aspects of perception that are built into our biology that we cannot easily control, even if we are consciously aware of them. Our physical senses have clear limitations, having been fine tuned by evolution to enable us to survive in the natural environment. Our bodies (including our minds) are hardwired to be sensitive to some things more than others, enabling both our survival and the survival of our species (through our ability to procreate and protect our young until they can do the same). We have instinctive behaviors, such as “body language” that communicates information about our physical and emotional state; and actions that either reward people for giving us what we want, or punish them if they don’t.

Attempting to look mostly good or mostly bad is, in essence, dishonest and disrespectful. Its effect, if well executed and based on accurate self-knowledge, is to cause others to behave differently than if they knew the truth. Whatever the gain, it is bound to be short-lived if they have access to other sources of information and if, for at least part of the time, they are honest with themselves. If instead we are honest about ourselves, and everyone else is too, then we have the best chance of making decisions that benefit us all over the long term.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Invasive Species

In ecology, “invasive species” are species that evolve in one type of ecosystem and either move, or are moved, into another type of ecosystem. Once there, they typically wreak havoc by outcompeting native species. Humans are arguably the most successful invasive species on the planet; and will continue to be, until we either change, or finish driving ourselves extinct along with as many other species as we can take with us.

Our corporations and empire-building nations are perhaps the most visible cultural manifestations of this identity. Each measures success by how much of the world it can control to meet its needs and wants; how many people use its products, services, and cultural artifacts; and how many resources it can consume without paying full price for them (which often involves deceit, because deceit is easier than work).

On a philosophical level, a large number of us accept without question the notion that competition will solve all problems and maximize personal well-being. Only the latter part of this is true, and is only applicable to a rapidly shrinking fraction of the population. This is because competition by definition brings rewards to a small number of “winners” and penalizes the vast majority, who as “losers” will eventually be unable to survive on what’s left. In a resource-constrained world, competition is exactly the wrong strategy if the “problem” we are trying to solve is the long-term viability of the most number of people.

Other species, which don’t have a chance of competing against our tools and our intellect, are the ultimate losers in the “game” we are playing. Rather than cooperating with them, we treat them as resources to be consumed, or as competitors for what we want and they need to survive. Lost in our lust for total domination of the planet is the fact that our fate is ultimately tied to the fate of others. We are part of the larger community of Nature, which has supported us in unseen ways on the visceral promise that we will support it. That mutual support, which is far too complex for us to deal with on a purely intellectual basis, has now eroded enough to threaten the survival of the planetary biosphere which depends on it.