Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Training Predators With a Bible

The war on liars, thieves and cheats was old when Moses joined the battle.

In fact, three of the Ten Commandments detail a moral code that proscribes these behaviors. 

And yet, lying, stealing, and cheating are still with us. 

Does that mean the Ten Commandments should be rejected as failure? 

Or is there something to learn here, namely that a penalty or reward that is not assured, that is largely undetermined, and which is parked far into the future, is one that is likely to be deeply discounted, if not ignored, altogether? 

When it comes to humans we too rarely discuss the deep-seated nature of the problem. 

The genetic code inside all humans is older than government, commerce, corporations, law, treaty, religion, or social convention. These are modern social constructs, and none are more than 10,000 years old. 

Inside every human, and underneath a relatively thin gloss of modern civilization, is the ancient genetic code of a social pack predator not so very different from that of a wolf. 

The evidence is written on our face.

▪️Predators have eyes that face forward in order to judge the striking distance to the prey. 

▪️Prey animals have eyes located on the sides of their head in order to see backwards as well as forward.

▪️The very shape of our face informs us of what we are: a predator. 

Humans, of course, no longer hunt as they once did. Across the globe, forest has fallen to field, and field has fallen to factory in a dizzying explosion of roads, technology, and population growth. And yet, the code inside us remains the same – the code of the opportunistic social pack predator. 

About five thousand years ago, as man increasingly turned to farming, trade, and living in cities, people began to cast about for a new external code to help govern the internal drives always bubbling just beneath the surface. 

The Ten Commandments were not the first attempt at an external code or “law” to govern internal drives, but they are an early example of a code that has endured and shaped a great deal of western law. 

Without a doubt, inscribing and teaching the Ten Commandments to generation after generation of people has helped prevent a lot of lying, stealing, and cheating. 

That said, admonitions to “do the right thing” have *never* been the sum of all law, and substantive real-world penalties have *always* been attached to breaking laws, ranging from the very mild (such as shaming or small civil fines) to the extreme (death by stoning). 

What is the right punishment? 

Good people can, and always will, disagree. 

The fox in the hen house may argue for a verbal warning, and the hen for capital punishment. 

But what of the farmer? What should be his position? His goal, after all, is not to maximize the killing of fox, but to minimize the loss of hens. 

If we carry the analogy forward, what can we learn? 

A smart farmer will make his hen house hard to invade but will also install an electric fence. The electric fence does not sleep. It does not delay, discuss, debate, or vacillate. The charge in the wire is never reduced. 

The result is that as soon as the fox touches the wire, it gets a very powerful shock. The timing of the shock is perfect, and the pain is such that it is more than the cost of doing business. A hungry fox does not have to touch the wire more than once or twice before it decides that easier pickings might be found elsewhere. 

But is this the way it normally works in the world of humans? 

Not hardly. 

Even our best monitored and most-active anti-fraud programs are little more than hen houses rigged with lights connected to often-faulty motion sensors. 

Such a setup may curb predation for a while, but the lure of profit is such that fraudsters are sure to “test the system.”

If there is no penalty for entering the hen house, and only rewards when the fox gets past the wire, fraud is not discouraged. 

So what does this mean in the modern world? 

It means if Jesus were alive today, he would have a program that moved substantially beyond vague promises of heaven and hell.  Instead, in his left hand would be remote control for an e-collar, and hanging from his belt would be a treat bag filled with immediate (if modest) beneficence.

Aversives, when strong enough and well-timed, make a powerful impression and can fix a lot of problems before they start. 

Imagine if, when you were sixteen years old, you had been shocked just as you reached out to touch that first can of purloined beer. 

Would you have reached for a second? A third? Would you have ever drunk a six pack? 

And if you had not, would you have done better in school? Would you have married a different girl or gotten a different job? 

Would three or four well-timed shocks have changed the entire trajectory of your life? 


But, of course, that's not what happened, is it? 

Instead, you drank the first beer, and the first beer drank the second beer, and before you can say "Bob's your Uncle" you had downed a six pack and discovered the joys of being drunk with members of the opposite sex. 

Of course, when people drink, bad things eventually happen. People get sick, they say or do something they shouldn't, they embarrass themselves. 

And yet, people still drink. We humans are slow learners and quick forgetters. 

Why? Why are we slow learners when it comes to things like booze? 

Well, to put it bluntly, beer, fate and society are not very good animal trainers. 

All three elements allow for long periods of self-reinforcing pleasure punctuated by episodic (and sometimes apparently random) negative outcomes. 

Often these negative outcomes are not all that painful. We survive hangovers, clean up the vomit, make our apologies, and we do not change our behavior too much. 

Of course, alcohol intoxication is only one form of self-reinforcing behavior. Others include driving too fast, coming to work late, leaving work early, and spending more money than we actually have. 

Provided nothing really bad happens, these bad behaviors will not go away. 

Only when we "feel the heat" do we "see the light." 

Even then, the heat must be consistent, and far enough outside our comfort zone to counter-balance the reward implicit to any self-reinforcing behavior. 

The good news is that if a well-timed and consistent aversive experience is delivered, we learn quickly. 

In fact, if we were all given a mild shock every time we went over the speed limit (rather than a random ticket we pay later), I think most of us would stop speeding in short order, and thousands of lives a year might be saved. Lesson learned, and it would not take a long time to learn it!

So does the church offer quick well-timed reward or quick well-time correction? 

It does not. It is even worse than law enforcement or our bosses. 

The Church tells us that only when we are dead and gone -- a lifetime from now, quite literally -- will we reap the true consequences of our actions. 

And, of course, that's if you believe in a sentient afterlife. Not many people do anymore, and so what was always a very weak training system, is now being implemented less and less. 

Any wonder that the world is .... (wait for it… wait for it).... going straight to Hell in a handcart?

1 comment:

Richard Gilbert said...

Fascinating, Patrick. And half right, in my view. My own deep dive into evolution began in 1980 when my brother in law, a DC psychiatrist, began to research human evolution seriously. He'd been rocked to his core by his early work in a maximum security prison. Talk about a Darwinian nightmare. He sought to place that reality against his perspective of what he saw daily: that most human beings are good, or trying to be.

Vast summary: apes were the lowest substrate, and they excel in the two-against-one calculus of politics and domination. But we left them pretty quickly, about 6 million years ago. Our most relevant forebears were the somewhat more human appearing hominids. There we evolved for about 2-3.5 million years. As far as we know, hominids were vegetarian, with huge molars for grinding coarse plant material. My/our theory, shared by a few researchers, is (keeping in mind nothing hugely helpful in this arena fossilizes: they were gentle, cooperative, without ego; they are the source of Jung's collective consciousness. They are what rebukes us for our vanity, rampant sexuality, and aggressive impulses.

Homo sapiens emerged from this Eden about 300,000 years ago. The chief new quality was ego. Which makes us clever, successful, vain, and sometimes cruel. The rise of farming was indeed The Fall, as it allowed some to hoard and amass wealth. Ego and communicative displays and physical beauty drew us together in larger and larger groups. But humans could be manipulated and led by unworthies. This ushered in our sad modern history of warfare—and the rapid selection of more warlike temperaments. But the bad stuff rides atop vastly more good.

Look a Putin. Causing massive trouble but a throwback, an aberration. Both simian and egoistic. A leap over the long, vital middle. Which brings us back to Darwin.

Everyone knows Darwin's first great theory, survival of the fittest. Conservatives love it in particular. It explains, condemns, and justifies all at once. Few get his second great theory, on sexual selection. So under his first theory the peacock's tail is an example of a male proving his fitness by carrying such a burden. Later, he wrote, "The peacock's tail makes me want to vomit." The reason is that the design detail in that burden showed him that it was a product of eons of careful selection. By peahens. Mate selection deepens and deeply complicates Darwin's gift. It was suppressed by sexist Victorians and, for kindred and different reasons, remains mostly ignored by academics.

A blazing recent exception is Prum's THE EVOLUTION OF BEAUTY, which I cannot recommend highly enough. My brother in law's book, Emotional Fossils: Mental Illness and Human Evolution, is pretty good too!