Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic

Book Review: Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John DeGraaf, David Wann , and Thomas H. Naylor (Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2001, 2002)

This is a good book about consumerism and commercialism seen metaphorically as a social disease. It came after a few PBS TV specials with the same title in the late 1990’s. The popularity of affluence seems to have peaked around this time of multinational and corporate growth. Here they define affluenza as: “a painful contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” Quite obviously, human consumption is affecting the planet as more people consume more, making more waste. The late 90’s did birth the move toward “simplifying” one’s life among the hipsters by being frugal and not promoting affluence.

Frenzied shopping ala “Black Friday” is a rather obvious affluenza trend, although the “super malls” of the 90’s are now not so much a thing. Now we have online shopping to make it even easier to own more. Shopping has seemingly become therapeutic to many but is it as we shop till we drop? I think it is more the social experience of seeing things with and around other people that attracts (distracts?) us but I really don’t know. 

Bankruptcies from credit card debt seemed to peak in the 90’s but living beyond one’s financial means is still problematic and mortgage fraud due to both givers and takers of bad deals was a key trigger of the 2008 financial crisis. Big houses, fancy cars, and the latest gadgetry are still fads among the afflicted. Our possessions clutter our houses and lives yet we still want more. Even space is cluttered with orbiting satellites and other assorted space junk. The oceans are cluttered with zones of floating plastic and trash. Our trash clutters the earth in landfills. Stuff also causes us stress since we need to pay for it, maintain and repair it, accessorize it, and often too soon – upgrade it. Futuristic predictions used to predict more leisure time but many of us have less free time due to excessive work hours. Many are overworked. Many choose stuff over time. Busy-ness tends to increase anxiety as does stuff as noted above. This stress over stuff and time affects families, usually negatively. The authors give some case histories where market values have eroded family values. Manipulative marketing to children is another problem that seems to have peaked in the late 90’s and now many are suspicious so it is less prevalent but still around. 

The authors suggest that a lack of community spirit exacerbates affluenza, oddly, as strangers compete against one another. We seem to have less opportunity for social interaction. Even in families we now tend to isolate ourselves with our individual technological devices. James Kuntsler suggested that as consumers we have no responsibilities but as citizens we do, that we need to get back to being citizens rather than mere consumers. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has devoted his career to studying “social capital,” defined here as “the connections among people that bind a community together.” He advocates for more face-to-face connections among people to foster trust. The authors suggest that as the big chain stores and big box stores like Walmart and Office Max put town stores out of business it makes for less social cohesion. However, one could also say that it can break up local social and economic monopolies on local policy as well as bring cheaper prices and higher local tax revenues. The huge retailers are more efficient even though they have eroded some small town niceties and contribute much to urban sprawl. The American phenomenon of gated communities also contributes to the phobia of social contact. People tend to feel safer in suburbia they say. People walk less and children play less in neighborhoods they deem dangerous. There are social costs to prosperity.

The loss of public works like the depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) where many young people took pride in the camaraderie of building American infrastructure is consonant with a loss of fellowship in sharing a common goal. The authors note the work of conservative economist Wilhelm Ropke in the late 1950’s. His book A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market would likely not find favor among today’s conservatives but back then even free market advocates hailed public works. Later in the 1980’s and beyond the separation between private enterprise and public works grew larger. Ropke spoke of the potential dangers of greed, prosperity, and rampant commercialism. He pointed out that free market capitalists bear a special responsibility for morality as they are the ones in the best position to enrich themselves at the expense of others. What has happened since then is that the rich got richer and the poor either stayed the same or got poorer. CEO pay has gone through the roof while worker pay has barely budged. Increasing minimum wages recently is a positive sign. Certainly the Occupy Movement brought income disparity to the forefront and I think that is their most useful legacy. Income disparity should be seen as a failure of unchecked free market capitalism but a boon to affluenza. Conservative philosopher Ernest van den Haag also noted that industrialization standardized and de-individualized people as worker-consumers in repetitive and non-challenging yet tough jobs, so that they craved meaning beyond such toil. We are lucky in that our technological society offers more free exploratory time to engage in more meaningful things. The authors note that while we consider America to be a classless society, in terms of economics it can be quite segregated into “haves” and “have-nots.” We may live in an age of billionaires but it is still an age of poverty, famine, and slavery in some pockets. This is clearly an imbalance. The poor are not immune to affluenza and in fact are taunted by calls to be or at least act affluent and buy things they can’t afford. Brand prestige was a common malady in the late 90’s. Desire for the latest gadget seems to affect all, rich or poor. Again the unsustainable loans offered by predatory lenders that powered the economic downturn of 2008 come to mind. Another problem is that people around the world want to emulate the American lifestyle and corporate systems. Energy usage and carbon emissions are climbing as a result. Europe manages to use far less energy per capita than the U.S. The reasons for that are manifold but one is that Americans do not feel the need to conserve as they should in a world where excess energy use can lead to environmental degradation and speed up climate change. 

Resource exhaustion is an important issue that needs to be continually addressed. Excess uses everything faster. Disposability renders it useless afterward. The potential hidden costs of our “stuff” can be staggering. Accelerated species extinction has accompanied resource exhaustion, sprawl, industrialization, and population growth. 

Pesticides and chemicals and their byproducts in nature have now long been a part of our food and water supplies. They are pervasive in the environment in small amounts. Some GMOs have escaped their plots and contaminated non-GMO crops. While toxicology is often dependent on dose and time of exposure, many chemicals have unknown toxicity levels and there are no long-term studies of their effects and cumulative effects. While poisons have been a part of people’s environments forever we are especially inundated with small quantities of low-level poisons. Pesticides, building products, cleaning and hygiene products, and many other concoctions can make us sick. In this age of factory farms, chemical sanitation, and household chemical solutions to problems, we can find any number of these in our water.

The authors suggest we have become addicted to affluence. It is great getting there but our happiness fades as it becomes routine. Shopping, fast food, and plugging into the latest gadget have become cures, fixes for our addictions. 

 We all know by now that material wealth does not equate to happiness yet we strive for it, perhaps for some of us to ward off any worry associated with poverty. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow came to the conclusion that wealth is a social construct. Maslow concluded that we have “higher” needs than mere material wealth as he noted in his famous “hierarchy of needs.” It may be more complicated than that nowadays but often our desire for wealth masks desires for other “higher” social needs. 

Next we come to a history of human material needs. Throughout most of our existence we were hunter-gatherers, with a need to be very mobile as we depleted local food resources. There were many dangers. However, as studies of modern hunter-gatherers show, there was also more leisure time as needs could often be met in short time periods. Such people are nor burdened with possessions and can take life slowly. Hebrew prophets and Ancient Greeks, especially Stoics and Cynics, preached against affluenza, wealth seeking, and excess. Live simply and cultivate character and intelligence was the prescription. Even in the New Testament, Christ warns about Mammon and the power of money. The Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull was said to have noted of the white Euro-Americans: “The love of possession is a disease with them.”

The Industrial Revolution and capitalism sanctioned inequality even more as workers worked for their lords and bosses. Injustices toward workers led to worker’s movements, socialism, and the Communist Manifesto. Of course, Marx believed in the power of mass production. He also believed that it would eventually lead to the liberty of the individual. However, the unchecked power of the state and the lack of rights of the individual became the main issue with his system in practice. Thoreau spoke out against affluenza in his Life Without Principle which advocated sufficient leisure time to explore and be creative as necessary to the health of people. After that there was often a debate between choosing time or money. In later times (the 1980’s and on) the choice became money for many. In America especially, an insane work ethic (in terms of time on the job) is seen as noble while in places like France and other parts of Europe it is not and indeed work hours can be restricted. Shorter hours were required during the Depression and there were various movements to shorten work hours before the age of mandatory overtime. Cereal tycoon A.K Kellogg led a movement toward a six hour workday but it did not take hold. During WWII there was rationing and reduction of waste. There was a sense of duty and community in the direness of fighting a common enemy. This led to efficiency sand new discoveries in science and technology. However, after the war, economic demand soared and so did credit in the form of bank loans. The Age of Planned Obsolescence was about to begin in the post-war Utopian period. Television brought brand ads to all and accelerated the quest toward affluence. 

Environmentalists in the 1970’s warned that endless growth was not sustainable and we are still dealing with this today. Jimmy Carter’s famous speech to conserve energy likely cost him the next election and the Age of Reagan with his relaxation of environmental and business regulations led to a full embrace of the philosophy of unregulated free market capitalism. This paved the way for an acceleration of affluenza that would peak in the Clinton and Bush years amidst the dot com and housing bubbles. Reagonomics (supply-side economics) also increased demand and the Yuppy was born, or rather, made. “Consume and flaunt it” became the mantra. One way to create demand was to flood the world with ads. Billboards, bus ads, signs, paper ads, endless mail ads, flyers, newspaper ads, TV and radio ads, etc. etc. seemed to pervade the world and brainwash us. Internet ads are all over these days. This hyper-commercialism tended to spread to places of the world that didn’t need it. Junk mail seemed to peak in the late 90’s and early this millennium.

Excessive waste is a consequence of this hyper-commercialism. As it became known that certain industries were producing excessive waste and not dealing with it effectively, a need for public relations sprang up. PR can be seen as a form of advertising as well as advocating directly for the benefits of various industries. It is of course a doubled edged sword. PR experts know that familiarity leads to acceptance. PR leads to the development of “front groups” where they secretly try to make things familiar and thus acceptable even though their products may be hazardous. PR experts are the spin doctors of the business world. Dealers of products like tobacco, leaded gasoline, artificial sweeteners, super sweet sodas, biotech, factory farms, chemical manufacturers, and fossil fuel all have a need to promote their products as safe – but also products unnecessary to regulate, since that would cost them (and you) money. Journalists may also be implicated in putting spins on the values of things. The handful of media conglomerates were most powerful just before the internet took off. Now we have media competition. Unfortunately that can work both ways as conspiracy and propaganda media is often able to slip in their often warped viewpoints. Biased journalists are often in cahoots with PR machines, consciously or unconsciously.

Information came to overload levels with the internet and now every phenomenon is viewed in alternative ways according to one’s bias. Global Warming alarmists, including several prominent scientists, give apocalyptic scenarios. Global Warming deniers make ridiculous pseudo-scientific assessments that a CO2 saturated atmosphere will lead to improvements and better conditions.  

The treatments for affluenza are actually fairly obvious: disengage, relax, be frugal, be efficient, recycle, track expenses, budget, work with others to support one another, and embrace simplicity. Other suggestions include spending time on education and reconnecting with nature, especially the nature around where you live. There are also many small things we can do to reduce waste and green our lives. We can also practice more citizenship, getting involved in social and community issues, community service, and volunteering. Environmental and socially responsible investing is an option. They mention a subversive group called Adbusters that went around promoting fake ads like the one of Joe Chemo instead of Joe Camel as a deflection of manipulative ads. Enlightening fact ads and memes that reject some mainstream and PR-oriented views have had some success on the internet, especially in social media. Promotion of media literacy in schools and anywhere else is another means of countering gullibility to predatory advertisements. We need to get used to picking it out quickly and routinely so as to root it out.

Sustainability in the form of sensible waste-reduction, investments in sustainable infrastructure, corporate reform, responsibility for entire product cycles (cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle strategies), and campaign finance reform are needed – I think most would agree. Work reduction, flexible working hours, and working from home save resources. They can also save money for businesses. The concept of gradual retirement is an interesting one. People do seem to want to work less as they get older – at least on their day to day toiling jobs. Older workers could stay longer with shorter hours to mentor younger workers who could find positions and not be in competition with them.

Becoming educated and keeping up to date is very important. There are sustainability indicators for every city and place. The authors mention another indicator of the health of a society, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which was formulated by a group called Redefining Progress. The GPI formulators showed that bigger is not always better. Their analysis indicates that as the GNP per capita and GDP per capita rose steadily over the last 50 years, the GPI stayed flat, even dropping a little bit. A list of GPI expenses includes: crime, family breakdowns, loss of free time, unemployment, commuting, pollution, loss of habitat, resource depletion, and other environmental damage. Acknowledging and reducing our ecological footprint is important. Seeing our world and relationships within it as a system is recommended by thinkers like Joanna Macy. Systems intelligence (SysQ) is becoming more recognized. Systems are affected by feedbacks. The climate and ecosystems are key examples. Macy advocates admitting that our culture is ill and needs care. Seeing this in a negative light some say people are calling for sacrifice and austerity. Seeing it in a more pragmatic light we can see it is an opportunity to be smart, frugal, and innovative. We need to reveal and admit to the hidden costs of our consuming ways of life – all of us. However, developing condescending greener-than-thou attitudes is counter-productive. It would be better to lure one another with logic rather than try to force our views on others.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Meaning of Human Existence

Book Review: The Meaning of Human Existence  - by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright Publishing – W.W. Norton 2014 Kindle Edition)

This follows up on famed biologist Wilson’s previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth and explores the meaning of life from several angles with most emphasis on the biological and scientific. It is a highly educated contemplation of the nature of us. He scrutinizes the word “meaning,” using it in a less usual context of finding meaning in the accidents of nature – meaning without advanced design. We evolved to become more and more complex and developed intelligence so now we can analyze our own complexity and intelligence and search for meaning. He notes that we as a species are on the cusp of abandoning natural selection in favor of directing our own evolution and that brings new moral and logistical issues.  He points out that biologically there are ultimate meanings and proximate meanings. The ultimate meaning of human existence is of course unknown so he mainly addresses proximate meanings. He rejects ideas like predestination and religion and states that wisdom based on self-knowledge can be more useful to us.

The human condition, he says, is the product of history, not only ours but the whole of biological history, as well as our cultural history. He notes that most complex societies, human and some other animal species, have developed through eusociality, which refers to groups which rear their young across multiple generations and divide labor so that some members surrender their personal reproduction in favor of the reproductive success of other members. Eusociality is very rare among life forms but is a key feature of our own species. Eusociality also came relatively late, beginning between 200 and 150 million years ago in the earliest species of ants and termites. Eusocial species have come to dominate the earth in terms of sheer numbers and by weight even though they make up a small amount of species. One reason he thinks it is rare is that it requires special evolutionary sequences with the final one being construction of protected nests. In such a situation the labor gets divided between risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses. Among humans one line developed where hunters hunted and foraged for meat to bring back to a protected nest and the social activity of assessing the intentions of others in the group likely helped to develop memory. Sociality and possibly other reasons (remembering where and when to get food) led to a knowledge of past and future along with the present. The new world of social interaction led to scenario development where social strategies emerged. This led ultimately to our development of the humanities as ways of knowing. Our social evolution is implicated in our vast and evolutionarily quick species brain development. Higher social intelligence led to greater evolutionary success.
He describes the theory of kinship selection

“… individuals favor collateral kin (relatives other than offspring), making it easier for altruism to evolve among members of the same group. Complex social behavior can evolve when group members individually reap greater benefits in numbers of genes passed to the next generation than losses from their altruism, averaged through their behavior toward all members of the group. The combined effect on the survival and reproduction of the individual is called inclusive fitness. ”

He disputes kinship selection and the inclusive fitness theory of evolution and favors his own and others’ theory of multilevel selection

“This formulation recognizes two levels at which natural selection operates: individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups. Group selection can occur through violent conflict or by competition between groups in the finding and harvesting of new resources.”

He thinks that mathematics and eusociality favor multilevel selection over kinship selection and that kinship selection/inclusive fitness has become a case of orthodoxy among biologists such that it has been difficult to get multilevel selection accepted as it should be. 

Better understanding of our biological origins, he says, is leading to a necessary convergence between biology and the humanities.

He asks, “Are we good yet corruptible or are we selfish and sinful yet redeemable?” He suggests we are both. This dual nature may well define our inner conflict based on multilevel selection. The unit of natural selection is the gene (or more precisely the alleles, or multiple forms of the same gene) and the target is the trait prescribed by the gene. In multilevel selection the trait may be selected by competition among individuals or by competition among groups. Better organized, more cooperative, and better communicating groups will win out over others less so. He notes as examples the “exquisitely programmed caste systems of ants, termites, and other social insects…” He notes that Charles Darwin saw the value of between-group selection.

Wilson suggests that our ancestor Homo habilis, turned to a diet with more meat as previous ancestors were vegetarian. This led to more hunting and nest-building as well as contributing to bigger brain size. He suggests that during this time a conflict arose between individual level selection and group level selection. Altruism and cooperation between all group members then became an important factor in competition with other groups for resources. Individual selection promoted selfishness while group selection promoted altruism. He also uses the terms sin and virtue. While this inner conflict may seem like inner competition between sin and virtue, or God and Satan to religionists, it is really just biology, he says. This inner conflict that we often describe as conscience has a biological origin and is a heritage that somehow helps us to survive.

He mentions a key idea of the Enlightenment – that we can know all through science and the quest to do so – precursed by the likes of Francis Bacon. Then came the Romanticism of the 1800s when people came to seek meaning in ways other than science – through literature, poetry, art, music, etc. – the humanities. Science uses logic and avoids metaphor while the humanities value metaphor. He quotes Picasso: “art is the lie that shows us the truth.” We use metaphor to practice anthropocentricity, he says, because it sharpens our social intelligence skills. Our tendency to use myth and stories activates our scenario-building skills. These aid our survival in the same way, he says, as animals playing sharpens their hunting skills. 

He talks about continuums and gradients in science (ie. temperature, velocity, pH, mass, wavelength, and carbon-based molecular analogs). The most relevant continua to the humanities are the senses and they are quite limited in humans compared to other species. We are bound to the tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum that is our visible spectrum. Our sense of smell is abysmal compared to most other animals. Yet, through our scientific instruments we can measure the parts of the sensory spectrums that we can’t experience directly. 

Wilson sees the integrating of science and the humanities as a great frontier. He notes that if scientifically advanced aliens were to study us they would likely be interested in our humanities since they would know most or all of the science. The humanities are how we subjectively experience the world through our narrow sensory ranges. This can also be expressed as our cultural evolution. He mentions ‘gene-culture coevolution’ (“where genetic evolution and cultural evolution each affect the trajectory of the other”). We experience our cultural evolution from the inside looking out. It is subjective. Although we can also approach it from the outside through science, the understanding is not nearly as rich or nuanced. He says that the humanities are our heritage and the natural history of culture. Another reason to value the humanities he thinks is that science and technology will eventually contract to the point where new discoveries will slow as they already have begun to do so in science. He sees the most advances in the next few decades in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. He sees gene substitution as a future means to alleviate diseases and possibly to proceed with our volitional evolution. He thinks we will at first leave our evolution alone as a whole by not doing things like choosing desirable traits. He favors “existential conservatism” - “the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust.”  
Returning to the multilevel selection he notes that “selfish members win within groups, but groups of altruists best groups of selfish members.” Wilson was at first an advocate of inclusive fitness and defended it along with the population biologists that developed it. Science journalist Richard Dawkins explained the idea to the public in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Now Wilson sees the inclusive fitness theory as fundamentally incorrect even though it had become dogma. Much of the evidence to refute it has been post-2000. Wilson recounts some of the mathematical analysis and the rejections of other biologists and people – noting an indignant protest by Dawkins – here and in an appendix. The bottom line is that it is likely that evolution through multilevel natural selection is correct. He says it thusly:

“The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made Homo sapiens the first fully dominant species in Earth’s history.”

Humans are bizarre in some respects (as most species are). Most animal species utilize targeted pheromonal communication. Our lack of olfactory development excludes us from this world. Wilson was key in the discovery and early research on pheromones. There are many pheromones used in many ways. Ants are possibly the most detailed pheromone utilizer. Plants and bacteria also employ pheromones in various ways. Due to our large size and development of bipedalism our heads are lifted higher than most other species. Our ancestors required faster audio-visual communication as pheromonal would have been too slow. For these simple evolutionary reasons we do not use pheromones. We are a dominant species yet we are also sensory cripples, he notes.
Wilson is an authority on ants. He discusses superorganisms in general. He says that honeybees are the main superorganism that has come to be somewhat in symbiosis with humans and that they show some of the vulnerabilities of superorganisms which may express in the so-called colony collapse disorder. He notes that humans are not really superorganisms since we as individuals like to seek our own destiny, even though we have cooperation, division of labor, and altruism. In social insects division of labor is based on instinct. In us it is based on transmission of culture. We are too independent to be like worker ants.

Next he considers that the search for alien life is mainly a search for microbes. Microbial life is extraordinarily resilient. They can live in temperatures hotter than boiling water, in very low pH, and in deep cold. There are microbes (subterranean lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems, or SLIMEs) that draw energy from the metabolism of rocks down to depths of 1.4 kilometers. One question is whether alien life is coded the same way as earth life through our biological genesis, whether there is one code or more. There are living bacteria in our middle and upper atmosphere 6-10 kilometers above earth. Interstellar microbial travel informs ideas of “pangenesis” and it is known that microbes have accompanied our own space devices like the space shuttle. We could scan for interplanetary microbes but Wilson thinks the possibility of finding them is remote.

He explores what an E.T. would have to be like according to our evolutionary standards: land-dwelling, relatively large, biologically audio-visual, able to read facial expressions, distinct big head located up front, light to moderate jaws and teeth, have very high social intelligence, small number of free locomotory appendages, and be moral. He sees them thusly as equivalent to Neolithic humans at the beginning of the take-off of cultural evolution. He thinks they would not have indulged in volitional evolution as we should not (other than correcting disease-causing mutations). He thinks that earth was never visited and never will be by living aliens (perhaps by robots) due to the deadliness of potential biological incompatibilities of microbiomes. 

The collapse of biodiversity is the next topic. There are three levels of biodiversity: ecosystems, species, and genes. The number of species is a convenient measure of biodiversity. He thinks it will take a few hundred more years to describe species yet undiscovered and considers this lack of attention to taxonomy a mistake – that we should move faster in that regard and put more resources towards it. Without knowing the full or nearly full membership of an ecosystem we are at a disadvantage in trying to sustain it. He says that taxonomy is as necessary to ecology as anatomy and physiology are to medicine. If we don’t know all the species we are likely to misjudge the important ones, even “keystone” species. He notes that the human impact on biodiversity is an attack on ourselves. The acronym HIPPO describes the dangers: H = habitat loss, I = invasive species, P = pollution, P = population growth (per capita consumption is perhaps a better indicator), O = overharvesting. He notes that conservation efforts have slowed the collapse of biodiversity and can do still more but it is still proceeding rapidly toward low but steady mass extinctions due to human impacts.

Wilson describes the human mind as an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion. The mind is influenced by both culture and biology. The nature vs. nurture argument, can be informed by a knowledge of human instinct. He says that human instinct is different than animal instinct in that it is not (or perhaps less) genetically fixed. Humans and mammals with larger brains seem to have more flexible instincts. We tend to be influenced by what psychologists refer to as “prepared learning.” Even phobias, some acquired by a single experience, can be described a special instances of prepared learning.

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and the preparedness of learning over which those emotions preside”

This human nature is what connects genes to culture.

Wilson notes that in all living societies there is an intimate relation between religion and music. Neuroscience suggests that we have some sort of religious instinct. We intuitively seek a bridge between the real and the supernatural. Myth and religion likely arose to explain and relate with the mysteries of existence. Religions also perform social functions and relate to our need for social cohesion. It is quite tribal in that it is a key means of social bonding. Creation stories tend to define religion and are the heart of tribalism. Creation stories almost always make the tribe an elite and chosen group. Shared faith in the creation scenario unifies the group. In secular societies it is often political ideology that serves the same function. The psychological benefits of shared faith lead to a high level of in-group cooperation which makes the group successful in competing with groups that are less cooperative internally. Regarding religion he quotes Seneca the Younger: “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Wilson sees all religion as tribalism and as potentially dangerous, whether moderate or extremist. He suggests that we free ourselves from religion, from “demons and tribal gods.”

Free will is the next subject. Our particular consciousness for us is what it means to be alive and human, thus working toward an understanding of what it is, is a primary quest for science and the humanities. He laments traditional philosophers as failing to explain consciousness and notes the efforts of modern neuro-philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland as helpful in integrating biology and philosophy. Others disagree that biology can ever offer a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. Neurologists have set out to map neural correlates of consciousness but it is no guarantee that knowing which parts of the brain are associated with emotions, will, memory, reward, etc. will offer explanations that are ultimately useful. How consciousness evolved is also a fascinating subject with current emphasis. Wilson thinks that a better understanding of sensory information – presumably those parts beyond our tiny sliver of the continuum, and time, are within our grasp
“Conscious mental life is built entirely from confabulation. It is a constant review of stories experienced in the past and competing stories invented for the future.” 

Most of our conscious activity is related to social interactions. The “self” or what we regard as the self, he says, is the main dramatic character of the confabulated scenarios we constantly run. Our stories define us. This confabulated self is an illusion that aids our survival, it would seem.

“Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive.” 

Free will only exists in an operative sense to keep us sane and aid our survival, he thinks.

Wilson thinks we are alone and without ordained purpose, that we came to be out of chance and necessity. He is optimistic about this in that we can now better repair the damage caused by our irrational beliefs. I am not so optimistic as there does not seem to be any slowing of said irrationality. He thinks we could create a paradise if we could overcome our tendency to partake of our Paleolithic tribal adaptations that we no longer need:

“We are addicted to tribal conflict, which is harmless and entertaining if sublimated into team sports, but deadly when expressed as real-world ethnic, religious, and ideological struggles.”

Our emotional instability helps us to create, he suggests. We must learn control ourselves in order to avoid ruining our environment but we will never domesticate human nature and we should not seek to do so. He mentions the biological concept of the “tolerable parasite load” whereby a parasite seeks a balance in which parasite and host can live in relative harmony. Interestingly, he suggests a similar concept for dogma – “tolerable dogma load” where religious zealots could eventually live in harmony with the rest of us as long as they realize that their beliefs are also considered blasphemous to scientific sensibilities. Unfortunately, this seems a long way off. Even secular political ideologies can be mired in dogma when confronted more with demands to explain themselves, he says. Maybe. He specifically mentions denial of evolution, the very key to biology and beyond, and one of the very foundations of modern science. He describes dogma as a cultural parasitism and sees such ideas as religious creationism as the price of admission to religious tribes. Indeed, this seems the case. He does acknowledge, however, that there are some societal benefits to religious tribalism and its blind faith: it binds members, provides comfort, and it can promote charity and law-abiding behavior. Of course, it is not God, or grace, that provides these benefits, but membership in the group. Finally, he reminds that what we can know through science will eventually approach it limits but what we can know through the humanities, the arts, is vast in comparison. Science and art both spring from our biological orientation.

Lastly, there is a detailed appendix explaining the limitations of the inclusive fitness theory and the methods and mathematical models that refute it. He rejects any notion of universal design principles in evolution as there is no evidence of such, noting that the target of natural selection is not the individual (as inclusive fitness theorists incorrectly assume) but the “allele or genomic ensemble that affects behavior.”