TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2020
Also, you've been Schwedeled: The current state of our failing culture raises basic anthropological questions—questions about the basic intellectual and emotional functioning of our floundering, war-inclined species.
With that in mind, we'll direct you to a pair of points found in today's New York Times.
Our first citation comes from a guest column by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern. Headline included, the column starts like this:
Your Brain Is Not for Thinking
Five hundred million years ago, a tiny sea creature changed the course of history: It became the first predator. It somehow sensed the presence of another creature nearby, propelled or wiggled its way over, and deliberately ate it.
This new activity of hunting started an evolutionary arms race. Over millions of years, both predators and prey evolved more complex bodies that could sense and move more effectively to catch or elude other creatures.
Eventually, some creatures evolved a command center to run those complex bodies. We call it a brain.
This story of how brains evolved, while admittedly just a sketch, draws attention to a key insight about human beings that is too often overlooked. Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well...
According to Barrett, her "story of how brains evolved" is actually "just a sketch." We assume that means that her story is vastly oversimplified, or something roughly like that.
Set that to the side. Barrett says your brain exists (has evolved) "to keep you alive and well." It doesn't exist to produce pure thought.
(Working from that framework, the modern American brain can be said to be functioning well.)
Barrett takes her basic observation in one direction. We'll suggest a different application:
Does your brain exist to make you feel well? Say hello to tribal thought, to tribal true belief.
In his regular column in today's Times, Bret Stephens covers somewhat similar ground. In the following passage, he's discussing the "stab-in-the-back myth" which was sold to Germans to explain their nation's defeat in World War I:
[The story] claimed that the German Army, though in retreat in the fall of 1918, could have kept up the fight had it not been betrayed by defeatist and scheming politicians who agreed to an armistice that November.
This was, of course, a self-serving lie: Germany’s armies were being routed, its strategic situation was hopeless, its sailors were mutinying, its people were approaching starvation and only the armistice (which the kaiser’s generals asked for) spared it from a much more painful defeat.
But the nature of the myth wasn’t that it should be believable. It’s that it should be believed.
Question: If the story wasn't believable, why in the world was the story believed?
Answer: Our species' brain has not (primarily or necessarily) evolved for thinking—for rational thought! At times of great societal stress, our brain is designed to produce tribal true belief.
(At present, do our own tribe's brains behave in some such ways? We expect to address that question in the next few weeks.)
Completing the rule of three, we close by directing you to this new piece at Slate. The mysterious, inscrutable Heather Schwedel wrote the analysis piece in question. The headline atop it says this:
The Absolute Dirtiest Lines on Megan Thee Stallion’s New Album, Ranked
Slate began its life in the Clinton years as a source of intelligent mainstream center-left journalism. Our question—should it be surprising that Slate now seems to run on such rocket fuel?
We can offer no absolute answer to that sensible question. We can advance this one conjecture:
If you click that link and travel to Slate, you may find that you've been Schwedeled!
Our brains are not designed for thinking? Can that even be true of the brains over here, within our superior tribe?