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the evolution of the elephant and rider

This post is the second in a series responding to Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.” You can my initial brief review of the book here. This post will set the stage for a more substantive discussion about how and why our brains will sometimes lead us down paths we wouldn’t deliberately choose for ourselves, and what can be done to guard against this tendency. First, we need to understand our mind’s evolution.

Mankind is one of the few species able to live in large, relatively peaceful societies. So what do we have in common with ants, termites, and naked mole rats? We’ve all been able to overcome “the laws of evolution (such as competition and survival of the fittest)” through kin altruism.

Kin altruism is short-hand for the expansion of an organism’s genetic self-interest to family members beyond his own young. Bees, for instance, are all siblings, and its in their genetic self-interest to sacrifice themselves for the hive – “selfishness becomes genetic suicide.” This kin altruism, however, only takes a species so far; it breaks down quickly, especially for species that aren’t all brothers and sisters. For humans, “gratitude and vengeance are big steps on the road that led to human ultrasociality.”

Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that animal brain size correlates with social group size. Evolutionary success depends on playing the social game well. Brain power allows the animal to do just that, improving the animal’s odds of surviving and reproducing. Mix in some natural selection, and you explain the evolution of larger, increasingly sophisticated brains in humans.

The evolutionary backstory is essential to understanding why the brain functions as it does. Haidt identifies three cognitive developments that allowed humans to live in large, cooperative societies: language, reciprocity and vengeance.

Reciprocity and vengeance are two sides of the same coin to Haidt. He notes, “Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life.” Social cohesion and cooperation depends on the promise of reciprocity and fear of vengeance. Haidt restates Jane Jacobs’ observation that a neighborhood has a lot of problems when a parent doesn’t feel comfortable castigating someone else’s unruly child.

While language has evolved to serve a variety of purposes, Haidt infers that one of its principle uses to early man was gossip, which serves as a “policeman and a teacher.” What hit home for me was Haidt’s insight that “many species reciprocate, but only humans gossip, and much of what we gossip about is the value of other people as partners for reciprocal relationships.”

Language, reciprocity, and vengeance all work together to a socially productive end; “Gossip paired with reciprocity allows karma to work here on earth, not in the next life. As long as everyone plays tit-for-tat augmented by gratitude, vengeance, and gossip, the whole system should work beautifully.”

Yet Haidt notes that the system doesn’t work perfectly. Evolutionary quirks leave us biased and hypocritical, sabotaging our collective efforts for social cooperation. My primary interest is identifying these destructive quirks, figuring out why they exist, and developing a plan of action to minimize their destructive impact.

The reason for our cognitive hiccups is simple – “evolution never looks ahead” (terrific insight). For instance, “linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helped the elephant do something important in a better way.” Vocalization didn’t evolve so that we could reproduce every sound perfectly. Language itself didn’t evolve so that we could communicate with perfect efficiency and clarity. Natural selection finds better ways to do things, not the best ways.

Haidt compares the human mind to a rider on top of an elephant. The elephant is our ancestral, subconscious system of automatically processing that drives our most elemental impulses. Buddha offers further insight: “In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.” Buddha’s elephant trainer, the rider, is a relatively new addition to the cognitive space, as “language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution.”

In sum:
“The automatic system [the elephant] was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes part of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus) … The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.”

If the rider and the elephant sounds like the basis for a Disney buddy film, you’re right on track. Haidt describes the rider/elephant dynamic: “I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.”

The rider couldn’t do without the elephant, because “the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically,” but, likewise, the elephant depends on the rider for its chance for evolutionary success. For it’s the rider that “allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the her-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects.”

As Haidt notes in the block quote above, the elephant and rider (or automatic and controlled processing systems) correspond to different areas of the brain. The distinction does have basis in the way different parts of our brain are active when we are emotional and rushed versus detached and deliberate.

The next posts in this series (the mind and morality, man’s misuse of morality) look at where and why these dual systems of processing information go awry.


Filed under: Cognition

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