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Getting Past Us vs. Them
Mike Treder   May 6, 2009   Ethical Technology  

A stone age hunter-gatherer, coming upon a conflict where danger was present, didn’t have time to carefully analyze the situation, look for nuances, or seek points of commonality between combatants. Instead, driven by adrenalin, heart pumping, thoughts racing, pupils dilated—within seconds a choice was made: pick a side and join the fray, or turn and run away.

On the blog Overcoming Bias, sponsored by the Future of Humanity Institute, economics professor Robin Hanson writes:

As fiction authors know, compelling stories need conflict; readers love to root for good guys against bad guys. As college professors know, students perk up when academic topics are posed as conflicts.  Sophomores love to hear each subject posed as a conflict between several possible isms, especially a long bitter conflict.

Then, describing his experience in dealing with blog readers, Hanson says:

...most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war. Generation after generation, some old tell the young to seek internal peace; no internal side has the strength to win a clean victory, so all out war risks all out destruction. But the young will not hear.

It seems that one of humanity’s strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict. In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of conflicts. We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers. But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.

Professor Hanson is clearly right that humans have a built-in bias to look at complicated situations and reduce them to simple binary choices. It wouldn’t be hard for someone to develop a thesis from evolutionary psychology to support this argument.

Think about it for a minute. If you’re a stone age hunter-gatherer (which 99% of your humanoid ancestors were), and you come upon a conflict where danger is present, you don’t have time to carefully analyze the situation, look for nuances, seek points of commonality between combatants, etc. If you try this approach, you’re quite likely to end up dead. Instead, driven by adrenalin, your heart pumps, your thoughts race, your pupils dilate, and within seconds, if not sooner, you make a choice, pick a side, and join the fray. Either that or turn and run away.

I don’t think a comparatively few centuries of Enlightenment will quickly overcome two thousand millennia of this sort of evolutionary development.

So, what’s the solution? We’ve come a long way already through the spread of freedom, equality, education, and the benefit of a fossil-fueled prosperity. Yet, as Hanson points out, we’re still inclined to look for right sides and wrong sides, good sides and bad sides, ready to choose up and fight.

As a transhumanist, I wonder if the availability—and, perhaps, popularity—of enhancement therapies to increase our intelligence, moderate our psychology, and maximize our wisdom will someday open a door into new ways of thinking and living without the reflex need for us vs. them conflict.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

I suppose that even “peacemakers and compromisers” battle fiercely for their positions to win. At least the politicians I’m thinking of.

Concerning the ancient hunters and gathers, do we really have any idea as to what extent they had the capabilities of “analyzing situations, looking for nuances, seeking points of commonality”? Just because they may not have had time to use them in extreme situations does not mean that they didn’t have (or evolved to diminish) those capabilities. It could be that those very faculties, when applied to /other/ situations, are what helped those people survive. I really doubt anyone can make an assertion about this that rises above speculation.

Hector is right; our ancestors must have many occasions where immediate response was not the issue, so that cannot be the main explanation for our us/them ways.

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