Brought to you by
Sugar Tree Ridge
And the Limits of Human Intelligence
Thomas L. Atwood
March 31, 2009
Dogs behave a lot like people in many ways. A better understanding of their behavior can lead us to a better understanding of our own. This essay explores and explains canine behavior, leading to a remarkably simple model of how the world appears to the family Fido. A simple extrapolation of this behavioral model to humans, taking our more advanced intelligence into account, leads to some compelling conclusions about human behavior, and the resulting limitations on our ability to control and use our intelligence. The confluence and conflicts among rationality, personal desires and social pressures are explored. If you want a better understanding of the mess your life is in, and how to go about trying to fix it, read on!
Her full name is Black Beauty of Rocky Springs, but she doesn't know that. She is a black Labrador. She responds to the name "Beauty", when she's not distracted by some urgent canine business. She hasn't been to training school, so many of her natural impulses haven't been dulled by a training regimen. Also, as Labradors go, Beauty is not particularly bright, intellectually speaking.
A simple test of a dog's intelligence is its response to a fence. Suppose the dog is fenced out of the patio and wants to be with you inside, and there are two gates. The gate separating the dog from you is closed. A second gate, behind you on the other side of the patio is open. The dog is new to this territory. Will she recognize the open gate and run around to the other side of the patio to find entry? For many dogs, the answer is, yes. Unfortunately, for Beauty the answer is no. You would have to coax her around to the open gate, until she learned the alternate route.
All dogs are excellent learners. If you think about the fact that they don't have language, they may be even faster learners than we humans. Dogs do most of their learning by trial and error. I taught Beauty to sit in response to the word "sit" in only three trials. And it stuck. To this day, she responds immediately to the word "sit" by assuming the sitting posture. Well, if she's not too distracted or excited about something else. Beauty is a fast learner. Does that make her intelligent? Not really.
Beauty was born a strong jumper. It took a tall fence to keep her inside. But once she learned that she couldn't get over the fence, she accepted its constraint on her travel plans. After I blocked her first few attempts to dig under the fence, she also stopped trying that method of escape. One reason I assert that she is not very intelligent is that there were other places along the fence where small spaces between the bottom of the fence and the ground made obvious opportunities for tunneling attempts.
We have had Labradors that would certainly have tested and penetrated these weak points. In fact, we had one engineer named Buck that would unerringly identify and target the weakest point in a fence. As soon as I would fix the weakness, he would attack the next weakest point, and so on and on and on. Not Beauty. She will stand and watch other dogs go over and under the fence, but she will not attempt it, no matter how much she wants to be with them. She simply doesn't understand that escape is possible -- even while she watches other dogs do it. She had learned otherwise, and did not have the intellect to overcome her education.
Am I Intelligent?
I am a scientist by nature and by education. I go through each day observing, classifying and modeling my experiences in the world around me. One of the many things I have always tried to understand is my own intellectual functioning. In particular, I have long wrestled with the question about what parts of my behavior are emotional and what parts intellectually driven. To what extent am I bound by my emotional makeup? I mean "bound" in the sense of behaviorally imprisoned.
I remember being taught in school that man is a rational being, that he is set apart from all the animals by his ability to think. Here is man, the intelligent one, and there are all the other species, distinguished by their lack of intelligence. Many scientists have worked hard to try to pry intelligent behavior out of different species. But none of them quite makes it over the threshold. So man is an intelligent species and all the others on this planet are not, right?
Not so fast. It's not that the other species are intelligent. They're not. Not like us humans, anyway. But the question I have to pose is this: Is man an intelligent species? I will now present some arguments that we are not.
Rather, we are an emotionally driven species with a high degree of intelligence. Our intelligence rides around on an emotional framework, almost like extra baggage. It is called upon occasionally to solve problems. But intelligence is not our primary motivator. It is not the source of most of our behavior. In this sense, I contend that we are not an intelligent species.
More than anything else that has led me to this feeling are the conclusions I have drawn based on observations of my emotional Beauty. For me, it is Beauty's lack of intelligence that makes her so intellectually charming. Here is an alert, perceptive, active animal. She fits right in as a member of the family. Our emotional attachment to her is quite strong. So I watch and examine her behavior. I stake out the hypothesis that her behavior is primarily emotion-driven. Day in and day out I examine the plausibility of this hypothesis. And the result is that practically all of her behavior is directly or indirectly based on response to her emotions.
Defining Emotion-Based Behavior
What do I mean when I use the term "emotion". There are numerous scientifically precise definitions of emotions and emotion-based behavior. I don't invoke any of these. Sometimes complexity obscures the simple essence of things. Just to keep things simple, I define emotion-based behavior as any behavior not significantly influenced by learned responses or by rational thought. I will categorize all behavior as being either emotion-based or intellect-based, or some mixture of the two. Emotions are those drives within us that we are born with. They may result from the same biochemical mechanisms as rational thought, but they are genetically built in. They are not re-programmable, except by learning. We may use intellectual training to harness our emotions and to inhibit and restrict our emotion-based behavior, but nothing we can do will ultimately prevent the occurrence of emotional needs and desires.
There is an easy way to distinguish this emotion-based behavior. If you do something because you "want" to do it, you are probably exhibiting behavior that is emotion-based. Emotion-based behavior is doing something because you want to, or not doing something because you don't want to. To oversimplify, it is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Enter Beauty, an emotional animal. Because she is relatively unintelligent, she provides a good opportunity to study the effects of almost pure emotion on the behavior of a higher animal. In her case, that gray area of overlap, where behavior results as a mixture of emotional and intellectual stimulus , is largely excluded. Beauty is an animal who can learn quickly, who loves company, both human and canine, and who copes very effectively with her environment. How does she do it?
My simple model of Beauty's emotion-based behavior is this: She has a number of competing emotions. Examples are hunger, thirst, fear, aggression, pain, anxiety, a desire for play, a desire for companionship, a desire to be warm in winter and cool in summer, and so forth. The main principle that I see guiding her behavior is that at any given moment, the strongest emotion wins. Whatever need, desire or want she feels strongest about at any given moment is the one she will respond to.
The way I came to realize this was while watching her behavior when two competing desires had similar magnitudes. For example, I am outside on the patio with her and I am offering her food. Someone dear to her is inside the house looking at her through the glass door. She will usually abandon the person she is with, at least momentarily, to seek out a newcomer. So she is strongly attracted to the person behind the glass door. On the other hand, there stand I with food in hand. Her behavior in such a situation is very repeatable. She runs around in a circle, in visible emotional distress. She goes to the door and then to the food, but she doesn't commit to either. Back and forth, back and forth. This is just one example. I have made similar observations in numerous circumstances.
What this says to me is that if there is no clearly winning emotion, there is no decisive behavior exhibited. If I tip the scales by creating a situation where she has two different emotional desires, where one is clearly stronger, then Beauty's behavior is quickly decided and definitive. Here is an example. Beauty is an outdoor dog, but during the cold of the winter she sleeps in the basement. She has learned that if I am outside with her and I open the basement door, I will either invite her in or not. She has a strong aversion against being left out in the cold. But I have to let her out periodically so she can urinate and defecate. She then goes through a territorial ritual that takes a few minutes, after which she presents herself beside me next to the door, ready to reenter the warm basement. But her needs to void are partly ritualistic, and not necessarily immediate. She can usually hold it a little longer. If she sees me turn and approach the door, she immediately abandons her voiding ritual and races for the door. On a comfortably warm day, her response to my approaching the door is much weaker, if not totally absent.
Another example of emotional competition is when Beauty is thirsty, but agitated about something. Even though I know she is thirsty, she won't drink. She is distracted by a strange noise, another dog, or whatever. If I then take steps to calm her down, I can watch the thirst take over as the dominant emotion.
A simple behavioral model like this one is almost guaranteed to be too simple to accurately describe the behavior of so complex an animal as Beauty. For example, let's revisit the scenario where she runs around in circles in apparent emotional deadlock. Why wouldn't she just freeze in place in response to two competing desires? A more likely explanation of her behavior in this case could result by introducing a new, small hypothesis: When she approaches the food and sees that no other dog or human is competing with her for it, she experiences partial gratification. This temporarily lowers her emotional intensity associated with hunger. With lower hunger drive, her desire for companionship drives her back to the glass door. But now she has moved away from the food. She experiences partial gratification of the drive for companionship by being near her friend inside the house. So the hunger drive increases and the companionship drive decreases, and she heads back toward the supper dish.
Thus, it isn't that her emotions have canceled each other out. Rather, they are oscillating in response to her responses to them. She continues moving in a circle because she is caught in an oscillating feedback loop, to use an expression from electronics. But this refinement in my simple model doesn't change my underlying observation that the dominant emotion wins at any given moment. But, still, this behavioral model is too simple.
What It Means to Be Clever
I have said that Beauty is a good learner, but that she is not very intelligent. By "intelligent", here I mean "clever", like us humans, with our massive frontal lobe and its associated intellectual capabilities. We humans have been creating works of art for tens of thousands of years. This artistic activity involves creating and manipulating abstract images, often to represent real objects and events. Eventually, our ancestors developed systems of simple artistic images into alphabets that allowed them to record spoken words and historic events. In recent centuries we have developed symbolic systems of mathematical and scientific reasoning. Many of the more advanced manifestations of our cleverness are related to these abilities to express knowledge and ideas in terms of systems of abstract symbols. Furthermore, symbolic reasoning is merely a specialized area of our capacity for more comprehensive abstract reasoning.
But this cleverness form of intelligence goes beyond our ability to think symbolically, abstractly. An intelligent person is constantly considering "what if" scenarios of possible future occurrences. What if I turn left at the next intersection, will I arrive more quickly for a job interview? What if I buy that new television, will I still be able to make my mortgage payment this month? If I advocate a politically contentious zoning ordinance, will my customers be upset with me and seek another vendor? By using mental imagery as an abstract representation of the real world, we have achieved a limited but effective ability to control future events. First we think about doing something, and then we do it. I doubt that any other earthly creature has our ability to see possible futures and to modify behavior to try to influence these futures. When I refer to the cleverness form of intelligence, I mean these advanced forms of abstract reasoning.
Learning Overrides Emotion
An ability to learn is different from being clever. Nevertheless, the process of learning is not primarily an emotional process. It is a mental process, coupled with our perceptions. We perceive the world around us through sensory organs. These perceptions feed into our nervous system, where they may lead to responses that are emotional in nature or intellectual or some mixture of the two. Learning is a process of abstracting information from our perceptions, storing it for future reference, and later acting on it in connection with new perceptions to enrich the spectrum of possible responses of which we are capable.
The fact that Beauty is a quick learner means that she is not purely emotional in her responses after all. Through learning, her brain creates a system of inhibitions and overrides which actually exercises a considerable amount of control over her emotional responses. She may not be very clever, but she is an intelligent animal after all! Here I'm using the word "intelligent" in describing her brain's ability to override her normal responses to emotions. This is quite a different thing from being clever.
We don't like it when dogs jump up on strangers, or try to bite them. We don't like their sniffing in our private places. We don't like their ignoring us when we call them or give them commands. So we either train them ourselves or send them to training schools. In this way we condition their intelligence to override their normal emotional responses. This makes them more pleasant to be around and better able to function in an environment highly structured according to human preferences. Their adaptability to our environment results from their "emotional override" form of intelligence.
Since Beauty never went through any significant training, and since she lived in a relatively comfortable and protected environment, she never had to do very much learning. Thus her emotional responses were relatively uninhibited, especially when she was young. This is what made her such a good subject for studying the nature of emotion-driven behavior.
I have had the opportunity to watch the behavior of squirrels at various times during my life. We tend to view a squirrel as a quiet, fuzzy little animal. But if you think about it, a squirrel is like a rat adapted for living in trees. Their brain obviously isn't very large, nor would one expect it be if they are going to be well-adapted for jumping through the trees. A good jumper wouldn't want to be carrying a lot of extra weight around.
But one thing I observe about the mental activity of squirrels is that they have a very highly-developed sense of perspective. They understand positional relationships. They are quite good at examining a situation and mapping out a path to a food source before actually taking the path. If you want to see this in action, put up a bird feeder in a location that would be difficult for a squirrel to reach, but not impossible. If you have squirrels around, you will see demonstrations of their intelligence. In fact there are a number of companies that have sprung up to make and sell supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeders. They are often not very effective. In this competition of human intelligence versus squirrel intelligence, the squirrels often win. Squirrels are clearly borderline "clever" in the same sense as we humans.
Most dogs and cats share this form of cleverness. Most dogs will see the open patio gate behind me and run around to the other side of the patio fence to get inside. Most dogs will notice the space between the fence and the ground and will attempt to dig out at that point. I just happen to have one that usually doesn't.
A Simple Model of Human Behavior
So, I have this simple behavioral model that seems to explain Beauty's behavior in great detail. How does this relate to human behavior?
Suppose I try another hypothesis. Suppose I postulate that on a scale of evolution, I'm not so very far removed from that dog. Dogs are social animals, as are humans. We are both part predator and part scavenger. Behaviorally, we two species have a lot in common. Suppose I postulate that my emotional makeup is not much different from Beauty's. As an emotionally-directed animal, she is fully functional. She can behave very much like a human in many different circumstances. There are a lot of people who keep dogs as pets precisely because they seem so human! They are like a member of the family.
But let's look at this a different way. Instead of taking the point of view that humans and dogs get along so well together because dogs behave so much like us, let's look at it from the other direction. Maybe we get along so well together because we are so much like them! If, in this way, I apply my model for the behavior of dogs and cats and squirrels to myself, what can I say about my behavior?
My new postulate is that I am essentially an emotion-driven animal with a lump of intelligence attached. I can use the intellectual process of learning in order to override my responses to emotional stimuli, just as Beauty does. On top of that, I can use my "cleverness" to work out in my head the potential consequences of my possible actions in any given situation. This allows me to inhibit my emotional responses even in the absence of previous learning. It is a modified form of learning without the need for any trial-and-error sessions.
Based on these ideas, I can describe my behavior in terms of a three-tiered behavioral model: (1) emotion-based behavior, (2) selectively modified by learning, (3) which is augmented by cleverness.
You can forget about Beauty for the moment. Now we can work inside that most excellent of behavioral laboratories, our own minds. I can look at my behavior while I am feeling the emotions, and while I am recalling past experiences, and while I am thinking clever thoughts. I can ask the same questions of myself that I asked about Beauty: Why did I do that? What accounts for my behavior?
If I do something simply because I "want" to, I am exhibiting emotion-based behavior. If I inhibit or modify this emotion-based behavior through learning, I am exhibiting a low form of intelligence. If I inhibit or modify this "learned emotion-based" behavior through "cleverness", I am exhibiting a higher form of intelligence. I am right up there with the squirrel!
What makes me different from the squirrel is the complexity of my cleverness.
I remember many years ago learning that it was man's development of an opposing thumb that set him apart from the other animals. He became a tool maker and a tool user to a much greater extent than any other animal, and this set him on an evolutionary track toward our most excellent mentality.
We have learned a lot more about our evolutionary background since I was a schoolboy. For one thing, the brain uses a lot of energy. In any environment where food is scarce, a large brain becomes a liability. This is particularly true when you can get the perceptiveness of a bird or the cleverness of a squirrel in a very small mental package. It is the cleverness beyond that of a squirrel that sets us apart. Human cleverness requires an abundance of mental real estate. We evolved this high form of cleverness, because our ancestors found themselves in environments where they could make it pay. Using a high form of cleverness, they could find enough food to support a brain capable of manifesting a high form of cleverness.
What mental capacities do we have that a squirrel or a dog doesn't have? Our perceptive abilities are roughly the same. We have the same five senses. Our vision is better than a dog's, but in some ways not as good as a bird's. Our sense of smell is nowhere near as good as a dog"s, but it is the same basic form of perception. Our hearing is similar to a dog's. I imagine our sense of touch could be a little more delicate. Beyond our perceptive similarities to those of other animals, our mental process of experience-based learning and its associated mechanism of emotional override appears to be approximately the same. What is different about our cleverness?
For one thing, we can reason, can think about the future and attempt to alter it. And then, we can speak. And we can listen and understand the speech of others. We can communicate thoughts from one brain to another. In effect, we can read another person's mind. If you think about communication this way, it is a pretty remarkable ability. Dogs can communicate emotional states and, to some extent, perceptions. When a dog alerts on a target of interest, his pack mates can read his perceptive state and quickly find the target themselves by interpreting his body posture. But dogs can't communicate cleverness.
A dog can't say, "Stop, or I'll shoot!". But sometimes he can interpret such a complex message coming from another animal. If he has been shot at before, he can interpret the meaning of the circumstances, for example, if he sees the gun. If he has been trained to stop when he hears the sound "Stop", he may respond. He certainly knows the implication of a bear growling at him.
But if I say "Tomorrow it is going to rain.", there is no way to communicate this to him. A statement like, "If you will balance the checkbook, I will wash the dishes.", will put a dog squarely in his place. He doesn't have a facility to communicate cleverness. Yes, he can read another dog's mind, in the same sense that we can feel another person's pain. But he can't read the clever part. And we humans can, through our speech communication. Dogs are social animals, but we are even more social, because we can share cleverness.
In addition to our ability to interpret speech, which has been grafted onto our sense of hearing, we have the ability to visualize abstract scenes, situations and circumstances. But I've watched Beauty closely enough to believe that she has this same ability in large measure. The mere fact of knowing her way down a complex path is a good indication of this. Sure, it is based on learning. But it is also based on visual recognition of some abstract cues stored in her memory.
If, however, I design a machine or write a computer program or write an essay called "Emotional Beauty", I am taking these stored visualizations of different circumstances in my life and drawing very complex conclusions from them. I am also manipulating these visualizations with all kinds of "what if" scenarios, and I am using a symbolic alphabet, lexicon and grammar to record my thoughts. I haven't seen any evidence that Beauty can do this at anything above a rudimentary level, like the squirrel divining a complex path to a bird feeder.
Since I can include myself among the abstractions in my reasoning mind, I am self-conscious. I can manipulate a visualization of myself. I can also think about thinking. I can make a speech without saying a word, and I can hear a speech that was never given. All this can happen because I have a large frontal lobe and Beauty doesn't.
So, why don't I use my intelligence more? Given that I have this superb intellectual toolbox, why does my behavior continue to be primarily emotion-driven? Why doesn't my intelligence take over? The answer is simple. Because I don't want to.
The process of learning in its lowest form merely substitutes one emotional response to a situation with another emotional response. Instead of being curious about a snake, Beauty reacts with fear and anger after she has learned from being bitten. But if I modify my behavior by trying to do what I ought instead of what I want, I am not necessarily substituting another emotion to override my desire. Rather, I am canceling the desire, and directing my behavior through some vague emotional sense of doing what is right. If I can attach an emotional support to rational behavior, it might be love of God or social pressure. Perhaps there is a sense of pride when one does the "right" thing.
Without these forms of compensating emotions, the attempt to rationally override an emotion, to cancel it, creates a situation where there is no emotional gratification. We have an emotion that describes this situation. It is the emotional feeling of frustration. If I try to do the "right" thing and I don't have a mechanism for substituting another, gratifiable emotion for the one I am trying to override, I'm probably going to get frustrated in some underlying emotional sense. And so we often do what we want, instead of what we ought, simply to avoid that frustration, because we are controlled by our emotions.
I am distracted by the smell of food cooking in the oven, by the presence of an attractive member of the opposite sex, by an interesting program on the television. I want to spend time with my friends. My attention is totally usurped by anger against an enemy. I am hooked on that computer game, or drug, or alcoholic beverage.
Some time ago, I was out with my family, trying out a new barbecue joint one Saturday evening. Where I was sitting, I had a good view of the entrance. I watched as a dozen or more young people of high school age gradually congregated just inside the entrance. They never made a move to find a table or to order anything. The boys, in twos and threes stood talking to each other and looking around, and the same for the girls. I am not a good enough writer to express the subtleties of behavior I was witnessing. The preening, the furtive glances, the quiet comments, the total lack of a sense of group direction.
A younger child would have said something like, "What should we do next?". But I think none of those fine young people would have been able to find any answer, other than the one they eventually gravitated toward--another destination. I remembered the overwhelming force of my own feelings when I was that age. Each and every one of these youngsters was in the grip of an emotional force field that had taken almost total control over their behavior. And none of them was even remotely aware of what was happening. They may as well have been zombies.
When they get older and develop their social and intellectual graces, the young men will find something witty or interesting to say to the young ladies and vice-versa. They will become more visually and verbally expressive. The whole process will become intellectually enriched. They will find tables and take the time to sit down for conversation over a meal. This is bound to be more pleasurable than the congregation I witnessed in the restaurant. At least the boys and the girls will be talking to each other. But the overlaying of an intellectual aire does little to subdue the emotional push that brought these kids together in the first place.
With all the intellectual power at his command, the preacher still ends up being dismissed for fooling around with the deacon's wife! The successful businessman accumulates wealth beyond his needs, making him a target for a violent thief. The thief puts his very life in jeopardy, attempting to keep secret his identity by killing his victim. Many of us eat our way to a heart attack, or smoke our way to lung cancer or drink our way to terminal liver disease. And each of us knows what he is doing. We know what we ought to do, but we do what we want to do or what we fear to not do.
Why in the world would I want to study my multiplication tables or balance the checkbook? Why would I want to study a history lesson or improve my writing skills or learn to program a computer or seek a cure for cancer? The answer is simple. I don't want to. Activities like these are tedious and they are not fun! They stand in opposition to my emotional directives.
And so I am inclined to do what I want to do, instead of what I know I ought to do. What I ought to do becomes known to me through my intelligence. What I want to do is a course charted by my emotions. On an even playing field, "want" beats "ought" most of the time.
Ultimately, we seek employment and go to work because this is our modern way of hunting and gathering food, finding shelter and providing for our other physical necessities. If we enjoy our work, we may want to go to work. But most people, when offered a day off with pay will take it. But if we want the good things that a good job can provide, our work becomes one of our most important activities.
In our advanced civilization, it is obvious that a good education usually guarantees a good job and a prosperous life. You would think that as intelligent beings we would recognize this necessity as school children. We would recognize the advantages that would accrue to us if we are careful students of language, mathematics, science and history. But we don't. We don't learn about the necessity of work and the advantages of education until after Mom and Dad finally throw us out of the house. This "after the fact" learning is the kind of learning that Beauty is so good at. The failure of our children to seize upon the value of a good education for success in the workplace is just another indication that we are not primarily an intelligent species. We may fail to utilize our cleverness, even when we are most in need of it.
You might argue that school children should not be expected to exhibit such intelligence, since they are not very experienced in life and they have not yet been educated. But I would then have to remind you that learning from experience is what Beauty does so well. Education, on the other hand, is a use to which we put our intelligence. It involves the communication of other peoples' experiences into the heads of our young. Education is the gaining of experience by proxy. It is a more efficient process of learning.
Education, as we practice it, doesn't have much to do with being clever. You can be a specialist in one area and incompetent in another. You can be extremely well-educated, yet be incapable of making good decisions. Like Beauty, a human can be trained without being clever. And so most of our children grow up to learn the value of an education only after it is too late. When they are still in school, many of them fail to recognize the value of what they are doing, just like Beauty fails to recognize the significance of the open patio gate behind me.
The power of our intelligence is most evident when we are engaged in business and commerce. This is a world of construction, manufacturing, transporting, accounting, word processing, computer programing, graphic art, tactics and strategy. We engage in sales and marketing, banking and investment, research and development, and, always, education. It is as if our intelligence takes control of our behavior when we are in the workplace. Emotional outbursts are often severely discouraged. Only productivity is important. In the business world, our emotional drives are forced to take a back seat to our intelligent faculties.
What an amazing behavioral transformation occurs when we go to work! This transformation is clearly a social phenomenon. We change our behavior because we are expected to do so by other people. And we seem to be emotionally programmed to respond favorably to these expectations.
Being a member of a group provides us with emotional satisfaction. Is this not a major contributor to our enjoyment of playing team sports? And I can't imagine any other explanation for our enjoyment as spectators. After we have become a member of a team, we constantly seek acceptance and approval by our teammates. The approval of others in our group is a powerful emotional goal that drives our behavior within the group.
The striving of each member of a team in his desire to elicit the approval of his teammates causes the team as a whole to maximize its performance. The whole team is the sum of its parts. The performance of the team is the sum of the performances of its members. In this way, the pursuit of emotional satisfaction by individual players translates into a desirable, even an optimized, level of group behavior.
I believe this is what happens in the workplace. We may go to work only because we have to work if we want to eat. But once we are at our workplace, our individual, emotion-based behavior gives way to the demands of this group dynamic. And the expectation in most workplaces is that the worker's behavior will not be emotion-based, but will be intellect-based. At a minimum, an assembly-line worker is expected to be productive. Even if little intelligence is needed to do a job, self-discipline is needed. Self-discipline is the stifling of our normal emotion-based behavior.
Doing a good job gives us a feeling of self worth. Perhaps this feeling represents the gratification of our desire for group approval. Maybe you haven't yet received an acknowledgment or an award for your efforts, but you know that your efforts were worthy of group approval. So, you feel good about your accomplishments.
Our Emotional Afflictions
When we respond to our "wants" instead of our "oughts"--when the two are different--we are often asking for trouble. We may fall in love with an incompatible or abusive mate. We may eat ourselves into obesity, smoke ourselves into heart failure, drink or drug ourselves into poverty. A desire to get rich may cause us to throw away money on gambling. Anger, greed or jealousy may cause us to destroy important human relationships. The list goes on and on and on.
As a species we no longer live in small villages with our activities simply structured around primitive farming or hunting and gathering. Each day we have to confront in our lives the intellectually-derived complexities of our highly structured world. We have no choice but to use our intelligence, our cleverness in order to cope with our environment. Each new day may bring a different set of intellectual challenges.
The basic problem with all this modern complexity is that it seems to create a lot more "oughts" to compete with our "wants". Back in the village, we would likely know better than to marry an incompatible partner, since we both probably grew up together. Our emotional reactions to each other as children would probably have steered us in the right direction. Obesity would likely not have been as much of a problem, due to the absence of chemically processed foods designed to appeal to our sense of taste. The use of drugs and alcohol would likely have been restricted to social activities and more subjected to group pressure.
Back in the village we would have been much more tightly embedded in a close-knit society. The same social pressures that today cause us to be so successful in the workplace would have been applied to our "private" lives as well. You can see a manifestation of this in our modern housing subdivisions, with their property owners associations and tightly controlled deed restrictions. It is not always the desire to have a beautiful yard that gets it mowed every week. Sometimes it is the fear of disapproval from the others members of the "village".
Precisely because our modern world has become so complex, it has become more and more dangerous for us to respond to our environment emotionally. In other words, as a species, we have created for ourselves an environment for which we are in some ways not very well adapted. If you want an extreme example, imagine a national leader starting a nuclear war in a fit of anger. A more common example is a tired driver inadvertently running a red light. We have conquered some significant diseases, but have exposed ourselves to new ones. Some of us will commit suicide in order to kill others to further an emotion-based "cause".
We have created all these modern wonders in our lives so that we could live longer and more comfortably, both worthy emotional goals. But, based on our emotional and intellectual makeup, something seems to be wrong with the design of the "user interface" of this highly complex society of ours. This is not really a surprise, if you subscribe to my simple model of human behavior. We may walk upright, but we seem to stumble a lot. Individually, we really don't have the intellect to cope with the environment we have created. Our behavior is often emotion-based, and often in direct conflict with the intellectual abilities we possess.
Whenever two or three of us are gathered together, our behavior changes. In some ways we begin to act more as a group and less as separate individuals. We are by our nature social creatures. We care what other people think. We copy what other people do. We like to conform to the norms of whatever group we are in.
This group behavior is built into our genetic code. It is part of our emotional make-up. And it isn't unique to us humans, either. Dogs are social creatures. Cattle, too. Ants? Bees? Any animal that moves in herds or packs or troops or gaggles has a built-in social imperative. Our desire to be with other people is not based on intellectual preference, but on built-in emotion. The reason dogs fit in so well with human families is that they are able to transfer their social bonds to other species. We do this too. That is why we enjoy having dogs and cats as pets, as family members.
I want to help other people because it makes me feel good. I don't want to hurt other people because it makes me feel bad. Guilt is one of our social emotions. You know these feelings. They modify the behavior of an individual person in ways that benefit the group.
When you are alone in your house, you may behave in ways that you wouldn't want other people to know about. But when you are in public, you operate under restraints, for fear of what other people will think. You shave. You dress up to go out. But how many people shave and dress up every day if they are staying at home, alone. Why bother. Do you have a built-in desire to always be clean-shaven or well-dressed? So why do you do these things when you go out? Because you want to make a good impression on other people. You feel better about yourself when other people think highly of you.
Religion appears to be a social imperative. It manifests itself in societies all over the world, including primitive societies without previous contact with outside religions. It seems to be built in, a fundamental part of our emotional make-up. The particular creed, the particular deity or deities vary all over the place. But there is usually an underlying theme of treating other people well and with fairness. There is often reverence for nature. There may be feelings of love, reverence, guilt and fear toward God. All of this tends to lead to beneficial group behavior. There is almost always some degree of individual regimentation, self-denial and self-discipline resulting from religious imperatives.
The individual is restrained and the group becomes stronger. Our ancestors might have avoided voiding themselves in the river for fear of offending the god of the river. The group benefited by having a water supply less likely to cause disease. Religious law may forbid adultery. This reduces tensions between different families, leading to a more cohesive society. The Golden Rule promotes very strong social bonds among its practitioners.
Self versus Society
Each of us maintains a balance between selfishness and altruism. If our species is to survive, its members must survive and procreate. We must each look after our own interests, even if this puts us in competition with other people. It is important that each of us is selfish enough to take what is needed to survive, procreate and, if possible, prosper. If an individual dies, our species is weakened. That particular combination of genes is gone forever from the gene pool that represents our human species.
Of course, if a person gives his life saving other people, that giving of the last full measure of devotion to our species can be a net gain for the gene pool. But this would be an extreme example of altruism. In our daily lives, altruism just means caring for other people and helping them out, even when doing so is inconvenient. Our species became dominant over all others because we function extremely well in social groups. Thus, our desire to help and cooperate with other people is part of what makes our species so strong. It is part of our emotional make-up for very good reasons.
And so we experience a constant emotional tension between doing what we want as individuals and doing what we want as a member of society. Each of us establishes his or her own internal balance between individual and social needs. It is possible for a person to be extremely selfish or to be extremely caring for the welfare and protection of others. Most of us are somewhere in between. Because the desire to be selfish or the desire to help others is emotional, we don't really have any control over this emotional balance. We can impose rational control over our actions, but the underlying emotional tension will still be there.
The important conclusion to be drawn here is that it is natural for us to feel good about helping others and working together with others. We are meant to do it, so long as our individual well-being is not seriously threatened.
Our Emotional Beauty
If I arouse my intellect, and I seek to know the meaning of life, I may not find the ultimate answer, but I can certainly draw some conclusions that get me at least part way there. I can postulate that a human life has value. If one human life has value, then the sum of all humanity has far greater value. It is not unreasonable to assert that the survival and prospering of a species is always of greater importance than the survival and prospering of any one member. We must therefore be willing to endure personal sacrifice for the benefit of our species. Intelligence tells me this.
This is a purely intellectual deduction. It promotes self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. It promotes a kind of behavior largely opposite to that emotion-based individual behavior that seeks only individual self-gratification. If all I care about is the pursuit of my own pleasure, what am I contributing to the welfare of my species as a whole? I listen to music, watch movies, eat tasty meals, go to parties, dull my wits with alcohol or drugs, and so forth. To what purpose? To no purpose, really. I am merely satisfying my individual emotional impulses.
But look what happens when we go to work, or to church, or participate in some organized form of community service. All of a sudden a new dynamic takes over. We become truly social animals. We unite in a common sense of purpose. We activate our individual intelligence and direct it toward the accomplishment of group goals. The individual worker makes sacrifices for the benefit of the "company". The parishioner strengthens the church by contributing money and by seeking out new members. And what a political wonder is a volunteer fire department!
When we come together, we frequently work together for the benefit of everyone in the group. We acquiesce to leadership provided by those individuals who have the most talent in mustering support. There is no guarantee that any particular leader will make effective decisions on behalf of the group in any specific situation. But the emotion-driven social organization is automatically in place to allow effective group action whenever effective decisions are made.
What we have here is emotion-based behavior by individuals that predisposes them toward effective group participation and organization. Our emotional behavior as individuals in group settings creates situations where our intelligence can take over. And as individuals we are emotionally predisposed to respond to the mandates and self-sacrifice of an intelligence-directed group leadership.
Even so, this intelligence-based group dynamic can be thwarted by the individual, emotion-based behavior of the group leaders. A leader can use his group mandate to satisfy a desire for the accumulation of personal power and wealth at the expense of the group. There is no guarantee that the leadership will provide a net benefit for the group, or even that the leadership will act intelligently. What is provided in our individual emotion-based behavior is the opportunity for intelligent group behavior. Whenever these opportunities are taken, the group can benefit far beyond its potential as an emotion-driven organization. We need only look at the level of our current civilization to see the effects of it. We can see the benefits of intelligent leadership in science, business, transportation, communication, and so on. Our social organization also provides a level of security from crime and corruption that further enables and strengthens our social institutions.
As an intelligent individual, I am frequently in states of internal conflict between what I want to do and what I know I ought to do. My emotions lead me in one direction and my intelligence leads me in another. I am inclined to believe that using my intelligence is more likely to improve my life than discarding it whenever its conclusions conflict with what I want to do.
The universe operates in accordance with the principles of logic and mathematics. The science of physics--along with the other sciences derived from it--is a fairly reliable attempt to model natural law. Given this clockwork universe, the more our behavior is governed by our rational intellect, the more it is likely to be in accordance with the universe and our place in it.
This is the problem that each of us has to address. If we behave as we want, in accordance with our emotions, this frequently leads us into conflict with the world and the people around us. And yet, we are wired to behave this way. On the other hand, if we strive to strengthen and utilize our intellect, this can lead to emotional conflict, even though it improves our adaptability to the world around us and to our "mission" in the universe.
To solve this dilemma, we need to look to those areas of our emotional makeup that promote intellect-based behavior. Since our behavior as members of organized groups seems to facilitate intellect-based behavior, it would seem that in some sense we need to organize ourselves with the intent of swinging the balance further away from primarily emotion-based behavior. Such organizations would need to operate under mandates that extend beyond the functioning of business organizations, which is limited to manufacturing and the providing of services for profit. Even so, such organizations would share the underlying strength of businesses, in that organizing into groups promotes individual emotional balance and personal satisfaction. However, this more general mandate would need to extend into people's personal lives, since it would be designed to promote individual intellect-based behavior in all phases of a person's life. (This sounds a lot like the role of a church, doesn't it?)
Well, there you have it: A simple model for human behavior and its prescription for a better future.
Applying The Model
My relationship with Beauty is much richer now that I have developed this simple model of her behavior and mine. I have a much better understanding of how she sees the world, and of how similar she is to me in how she feels about things. I am much more appreciative of the intellectual roadblocks she encounters in this man-made world.
Whenever she enters a new environment or reenters a place with which she was previously familiar, she samples all the smells and looks around to get visual images of things. Her brain is predisposed to detect changes. If, sometime later, a strange new object appears, or a new smell, she may become visibly and audibly agitated. Such a change represents a potential threat to her, or a potential new friend, or potential prey. This is her perfectly normal response to change.
If dogs could assign a name to us humans, they would probably call us "the changers". We are always going around making benign changes in things. Nothing ever stays the same when we are around. A dog has to constantly resniff and revisualize its environment, just to keep up to date. This can be very confusing for a dog. On the other hand, it makes for an interesting life.
This simple model of the relationship between emotional behavior and rational behavior doesn't only apply to our relationships with animals. It also applies to our relationships with one another. According to these observations, we tend to behave more rationally when we are working in groups. I suppose this shouldn't be surprising. Our ascendency over all the other animals was largely the result of our superior ability to work in groups and to take care of one another. As our ability to communicate increased in response to these new evolutionary pressures, our brains became more powerful, particularly in the areas associated with more effective socialization: the processing of speech and of the abstract concepts that are communicated through speech.
The basis for our human behavior is a constant tension in each of us between what we want to do at any particular moment and what we know we ought to do. When these two different drives coincide, there is no tension. When they are different, when the tension is greatest, we get to choose whether to satisfy our desires or, taking control over them, to do the "right" thing. Whenever we surmount this conflict and exercise rational control to do what we ought, then we are being truly human. We are rising above primitive animal behavior and taking control of our destiny.
On the other hand, we often cave in to our emotions. We do whatever we feel like doing. When this conflicts with what we ought to be doing, then we are channeling our behavior in the same way as my emotional Beauty does every day of her life, without having any choice. But we humans do have the choice, and we ought to exercise it more often.