Showing posts with label Communication. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Communication. Show all posts

18 September 2015

The Failure to Communicate Evolution

EVOLUTION IS IN THE NEWS a lot these days. Buzzy scientists, like waspish Richard Dawkins, make stinging attacks on Creationists, who respond in kind: The God Delusion versus The Dawkins Delusion. In the US something like a pitched battle is going on in some places, where creationists want to replace science in schools with a literal reading of the Bible.

When evolution is a self-evident fact, and I think it is, why are so many people unconvinced by it? Building on my work on the psychology of belief I'd like to use problem of communicating evolution, or more precisely the problem of failing to communicate evolution, as a case study.

In my essay Facts and Feelings I set out my take on Antonio Damasio's model of how we process new information. Presented with some new item of information we evaluate the likelihood it is true. As per Justin Barrett's theory of belief, discussed more recently, we make these decisions based on fit with existing non-reflective beliefs. In any situation we will usually have a range of facts (items of information we consider to be true) and we have to judge which information is relevant to the situation, and which information take precedence in determining our course of action. I called this salience. Not everything that makes sense is salient; and not everything that is salient makes sense. 

A few hundred years ago in Europe, everyone knew that God created the world and this seemed to make sense to the vast majority. It was also deeply salient because the existence, omnipotence and omniscience of God were always important factors in understanding any situation and deciding how to act. The Church was the final authority on these matters and had adopted an earth-centric model of the universe. All the "heavenly" bodies, the sun, moon, planets and stars, orbited the earth. And then the situation began to change. Astronomers observed, for instance that the orbits of the planets were very difficult to explain if they orbited the earth and simple it they orbited the sun instead. And the orbits were ellipses rather than perfect circles. They saw that some "stars", visible only with a telescope, orbited not the earth or the sun, but Jupiter (the moons of Jupiter). Old sureties began to break down. Scientific Empiricism started to come into it's own. Knowledge based on closely observing the world began to supplant knowledge gained through abstract or theological speculations. Astronomers, using nothing but simple telescopes and patient observation, changed how we see the world and our place in it. Later with more sophisticated telescopes they introduced more paradigm changes. Now we know that our sun is an average, nondescript star in a fairly ordinary galaxy. One star out of 100 billion stars, in one galaxy out of 100 billion galaxies. Of course some of this knowledge is inferred. But the whole package has been observed so often that there can be no doubt that this is the case. It's as obvious a fact as that Cambridge is a town (population of about 120,000) in the United Kingdom, a country of population ca. 65 million.

A simple view of this change is that this shift in our understanding happened simply because the empirical knowledge was more true than theology. But my model suggests that it must also have been more salient to the people concerned. Why was astronomical knowledge more salient? I'm no great historian, but it seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church was starting to lose authority at around the same time. Martin Luther died in 1546. The key figures of the astronomical revolution were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), Galileo (1564 – 1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). The concerns that led to the forming of Protestant churches probably helped to provide an environment in which the observations of astronomers would be taken more seriously. The world was changing in others ways as well. Christopher Columbus (1450 or 51 – 1506) and Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) were busy expanding the Spanish Empire and enriching Spain immeasurably around this same time, while Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the earth. This was also the time of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the beginning of European involvement in slavery, and so on. The Renaissance is in full swing and along with it the rediscovery of ancient Greek Humanism.

Truth is relatively simple considered alongside salience. What makes a truth salient, is tied up with psychology, culture, and politics. I will argue that the problem of evolution is complex, because the truth of it is not self-evident to many, there is massive competition in terms of salience, there has been a failure of empathy in communicating evolution. 


Empiricism, science, has progressed in leaps and bounds since the 17th Century and the telescope. One of the great milestones in the progress of knowledge about the world was the publication of the On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1849. Of course this book did not, in point of fact, explain the origin of species, nor did it speak of "evolution", but Darwin subsequently did write about evolution and his name became synonymous with the theory. It was to be almost a century before a plausible theory of the origin of the variation upon which natural selection worked. This came with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick, Franklin, Watson & Wilkins, and the subsequent identification of sections of DNA called genes which encode the structures of proteins that a new more complete Darwinism was born which explained both variation and natural selection at the level of genes. 

The theory which combines genetics with Darwinism is sometimes called NeoDarwinism (the term is pejorative). NeoDarwinism is often referred to as The Theory of Evolution, but it really should be A Theory of Evolution. In fact I do not think it is the best explanation for the emergence of new species, nor is it a complete description of heredity and variation. Recent discoveries in epigenetics forced a reconsideration of the NeoDarwininan account of genes. Genes are not passive carriers of information, rather the genome as a whole is actively responding to the environment. For example, the amount of food available in one generation can affect how genes are expressed in a subsequent one for example. Also the genome of our symbiotic microbiome is many orders of magnitude larger than our own and can strongly affect our bodies, to the point where it has been called our "second genome". Study of the interactions between us and our symbionts has been slowed by the dominance of the NeoDarwian view which tends to see everything in isolation. This reduction of heredity to the "selfish gene" was what prompted me to refer to Richard Dawkins' popular explanation of genetics as "Neoliberalism applied to biology". In fact Neoliberalism is libertarian and utilitarian in character and these are both class-based ideologies. (See The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism).

In my view the best explanation of the origin of species is one with almost as long a pedigree but one which, though having greater explanatory power, is less fashionable. The Theory of Symbiogenesis is closely associated with the late Lynn Margulis whose seminal 1966 paper, under her married name Lynn Sagan, On the Origin of Mitosing Cells (note the implied connection with Darwin in her title) showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria. However well known this idea is today, it was originally rejected by the mainstream, and Margulis's ideas were marginalised. Margulis saw evolution as "community ecology over time", as a process which included elements of competition and war amongst species or genes, but was primarily driven by elements of cooperation, symbiosis, and combination. I agree with her assessment that Darwinian evolution, with its basis in metaphors of war and later selfishness, appealed to male scientists more than Symbiogenetic evolution which appeared too feminine.

However we describe the mechanism, it seems clear that species evolve from common ancestors and that all life on currently found on earth has a common ancestry, and that the process of life evolving has occurred over thousands of millions of years. No other explanation can fit all the facts. And yet some religieux, particularly fundamentalist Christians, refuse to accept these facts. Some Christians maintain that the Bible is a factual account of the history of the Earth. Why is this belief so tenacious? How can such people refuse to believe in evolution? I think there are a number of reasons, for example I see weaknesses in the theories that leave loopholes; a failure to create appropriate salience; and a failure to establish an empathetic connection.


Theoretically a infinite number of monkeys working over an infinite time span would eventually reproduce Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, by accident. The time required to produce a novel by random typing is so very long that the probability might as well be zero. But this deeply counter-intuitive idea is central to NeoDarwinism. In this view random mutations are the source of variability, and survival of the fittest weeds out variations which are not viable. It's as though we were to start with the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and introduced random typos and printing errors over a million printings. We don't expect War and Peace to emerge. We expect the text to become less and less comprehensible and eventually to become random gibberish. We expect this, and it is precisely what we observe happening in copying. Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts being copied in Nepal are literally gradually becoming incomprehensible because the scribes cannot (or do not) properly error check. It so happens that the most recent manuscript of the Heart Sutra to be identified was discovered by me in a digitised collection from Nepal. This manuscript is rife with errors, omissions and additions. Over about 280 words in Sanskrit, my edition has 140 footnotes, so that on average every second word is problematic. As it is, the manuscript is only readable if we know what it ought to say. On it's own it is already gibberish, though with enough surviving elements to identify the text it descends from. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) tells us that all closed systems should become more disordered over time. This is what happens at the level of chromosomes and cells. They gradually lose coherence and become more disordered, so that replication errors give rise to cancers for example. To date replication errors in ageing cells have never been observed given rise to rejuvenation. Errors wreck the process of replication, and mutations are vastly more likely to give rise to errors than viable code. We can call this the replication problem

So how does mutation drive improvements in the genome? The idea is that some small proportion of mutations enable an organism to better fit it's environment. And we do see some adaptive variations. The classic example, from texts when I studied biology, is the white moths that sometimes throw up a black individual. In the 19th century everything gets covered in soot and white moths are obvious and eaten by birds, while the rare black variety survive and become the dominant type. But then in the 20th century there's a big clean up and the situation reverses. The white moths come back because in this case white is the dominant gene. The argument is that the different versions of the gene for colour in the moths are the result of mutation and that environmental factors make one more adaptive than the other. 

In order for a mutation to be passed on the individual carrying it must survive and breed. But the vast majority mutations are deleterious (are cancer causing for example), and to be passed on the mutation must occur in gametes (ova and sperm in animals). Even given vast scales of time involved in evolution, this is all very counter-intuitive. The replication problem is a loophole. Any theory of evolution which allows for random mutation to be the driving force, is just not convincing because it is counter-intuitive. Presented with NeoDarwinism as The Theory of Evolution, plenty of intelligent and right thinking people conclude that it too unlikely to be credible. Lynn Margulis argued that while the NeoDarwinian account of evolution might account for variability with species, it did not account for the emergence of new species.

On the other hand, of course, we do see variability in genes. Such variations are apparent in humans for example and have formed the basis of the out of Africa hypothesis - the idea that all modern humans migrated from East Africa ca. 75,000 years ago to colonise every continent is partly based on tracing variations in genes in mitochondria and on the Y chromosome. But these variations are necessarily tiny and are not sufficient to define new species. The gene, or complex of genes, does the same job in all it's variations. Despite quite widely varying physical features, there is presently only one species of humans on the planet, a rather unusual occurrence in the history of hominids. Which brings us to the next loophole, the problem of observing speciation

The scientific literature on the emergence of new species is sparse, and often inconclusive. This is not helped by the fact that we have competing and contradictory definitions of what a species is. Summaries of this literature [1] produce what seems like a relatively small number of candidate cases where speciation seems to have occurred, but many of the examples are not due to the mutation of a gene, but to hybridization and polyploidy (mutation in whole chromosomes by doubling or tripling). Where two populations have diverged to the point of being unable to physically mate or produce viable offspring it is usually from artificial stress placed differentially on two initially identical populations in a laboratory. In the wild, the London Underground Mosquito its thought to be a naturally occurring example. However as Lynn Margulis notes with evident satisfaction (Symbiotic Planet, p.7-8) in an earlier, similar case with Drosophila fruit flies it was shown that what changed was not the organism, but its bacterial symbiont. Indeed from Boxhorn's summary it is not always obvious what has caused the phenotypic change. In most cases of so-called speciation, no gene mutation has been identified, nor has anyone gone back to alter an identified gene in the origin population to artificially produce a new species, though of course we have altered many genes in many different organisms. These would be a minimal requirements for confirming that speciation was due to the mechanisms proposed by NeoDarwinians. Since very few people are interested in symbiosis, changes in, for example, gut bacteria are seldom investigated and cannot yet be ruled out in most of the promising cases. Given the centrality of speciation for the theory of evolution there is surprisingly little research aimed at identifying and replicating the mechanisms of speciation.

Worse, the sources for these 'facts' are not freely available, and the vast majority are not qualified to assess how true they are since they are couched in jargon it takes years to learn. Science journalism further muddies the water because it frequently opts for sensationalism over solid results. Journalistic standards are very much lower than those of scientific publications. And here the specific problem is that journalists repeatedly report variation as though it is speciation. And it is not. Such easily refutable speculations help to undermine the case for evolution, help to make it seem less plausible to those who have a vested interest in a religious view. The lack of widely cited and well replicated cases of speciation is a major failing of evolutionary science.

Another loophole left by NeoDarwinism we can call the incremental problem. This is the argument that something like the eye could not have evolved one step at a time because it is far to complex. This is partly a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine the steps required to go from a single light-sensitive cell to a complex eye with specialist organs like a lens, eye muscles, various fluids, specialised nerve cells and so on. The number of potential steps is enormous and the tiny variations which might accumulate are difficult to put together into a coherent picture. Big numbers are just abstract concepts for most people and have no kind of real life analogue: we struggle with geological time periods especially. "A million years" has more or less no meaning to most people. Thus the evolution of complex organs through random (undirected) mutations in genes, is also counter-intuitive. 

So, even though I am educated in the sciences and have studied evolution, and even though I believe evolution to be self-evident, the details of how evolution works are far from clear to me. A good deal of the detail seems counter-intuitive as it is commonly explained. NeoDarwinism in particular seems a less plausible explanation of speciation than Symbiogenesis. A minor point in favour of Buddhism is that it does not conflict with the basic idea of evolution, even though the cosmology and cosmogony that many Buddhists cite is incompatible with a scientific worldview. On the other hand, for a Young Earth Creationist there are all these loopholes, all these weaknesses in the theories of evolution—the replication problem, the observation problem, and the incremental problem—that make it easy for them to shrug off evolution as a theory. And they have a strong emotional attachment to the competing story in the Bible that means that there is competition for what is most salient in the discussion of what life is and how it changes over time.


Scientists aim for objectivity. This makes sense. It allows us to get insights into reality by triangulating the observations of many observers. Each observer brings an element of subjectivity to the observation, but by combining the observations of many observers over repeated observations we can eliminate a good deal of what is due to subjectivity. If we observe dispassionately it makes the process more efficient. This approach is sustained in communicating science in official publications. The language is impersonal and favours passive constructions e.g. "the animal was observed to eat an apple." Just the facts. But contrary to the old saw, the facts do not speak for themselves. In ordinary life we rate the importance of information by the emotion that it elicits in us. Those of us who are excited by concepts and science are quite rare. Without any sense of how relevant these facts are, we struggle to assess their salience. We're even puzzled as to why scientists are excited by them and want such huge amounts of money to study them. Recently there's a trend towards funding research on the basis of how much revenue it will generate. I see this as a direct symptom of the failure to communicate the salience of research. Left to their own devices politicians fall back on what they do understand.

Now compare the way that fundamentalists communicate their version of events. The message is accompanied by strong emotions, and these are reinforced by communal rituals, and by peer networks. Preachers not only tell us the facts as they see them, but they communicate both verbally and non-verbally that this is most important thing we have ever heard. The message is simple, clear, and repeated often; and it addresses our most fundamental questions about life and death. The religious message could not have more relevance. One's immortal soul is at stake. And for most people an immortal soul is an intuitive concept, unlike evolution.

It is not so hard to see why some people don't feel any real conflict over what to believe and reject the theory of evolution. It is communicated in such a way that it has little or no salience for them. It is not communicated in a way that demonstrates how important it is to know this. If a person does not value this kind of fact up front, they are not going to be converted by an appeal to intellect. But there is also a countervailing force. When we begin to unravel someone's religious faith we undermine their worldview in many ways. Not simply their view on God's role in creation, but their felt sense of the God's presence; the importance of God's commandments in morality; the whole concept of the afterlife and how it will play out for the individual; the rationale and coping strategies for dealing with adversity; the sense of meaning and purpose that helps them deal with a life working in a bullshit job (and all that goes with that); and so on. It's not that they should simply give up believing in God and will be better for it. We have no reason to think that undermining someone's faith would do anything but harm to them. The wholesale conversion of Westerners to atheism is no doubt a big subject for debate, but to my mind it has created generations of nihilists and hedonists, who threaten to undo much of the progress made since the European Enlightenment through short termism and the individual pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and power without any thought for other people. That one of the main responses to this nihilism is a further retreat into Romanticism is not helpful either. I'm pretty sure that Neoliberalism is not better than Christianity as an ideology.

Even for the average atheist its can be hard to see why believing in evolution is important. Believing or not believing has little or no relevance to how we live our lives: how we work, shop or play. It doesn't make us better people. It won't make us live longer or be more prosperous. There's no reason we should care about evolution. The reason any of us know about it at all, is that eggheads insist that we learn it at school. Which brings us to the third problem.


One of the characteristics of the current public debate on religion is hostility. Many prominent atheists now embrace the sobriquet militant. Just as in the theory of evolution, the metaphor most often invoked in these discussions is war. What might have been a discussion or a dialogue, or a dance even, is now a battle. Wars are decided by annihilating the enemy or forcing the survivors to capitulate and lose everything. Verbal exchanges are not aimed at creating understanding, or even communicating facts now, they are aimed at taking positions, landing blows, at undermining opposing positions, and at destroying opposition. Stepping into this theatre of war carries with it the threat of attack. This metaphorical war sometimes erupts into literal conflicts, and in the USA not a few court cases. Not surprisingly in situations where both sides are expressing considerable illwill, there is little actual communication.

There is a good sized body of research on what makes for good communication and how to persuade people of your point of view. Indeed the study of rhetoric dates from ancient Greece. None of this research, nor even common sense, suggests insulting your interlocutor or their beliefs as an effective strategy. Despite this, some of those who lead the secular charge in the war on religion, completely ignore all of this valuable research, and resort to insults and accusations. This issue is much more tense in the USA where Christians themselves are more militant (having been mobilised to political awareness by the political right in the late 1970s). But I think scientists have to have the courage of their convictions. Why are the scientists not using science to inform their rhetoric? Could it be that they lack faith in science, or is it that they don't even consider that they might be poor at communicating? Do leading scientific secularists not observe the results of their actions, reflect form hypotheses and test them? They do not seem to as far as I can tell. They preach to the converted and damn the heretics to hell, as it were. 

The strategy of scientists, presenting people with a series of facts with no clear statement of values, leaves people cold. "Coldness" is part of an extended metaphorical dichotomy relating to our inner life: EMOTIONS ARE HOT; INTELLECT IS COOL. Rational arguments are cool, but purely intellectual people are often perceived as cold. Other phrases which draw on this metaphor are: "He is a cold fish", "She gave him the cold shoulder", "She was frigid". A cadaver is cold to the touch. Warmth is the characteristic of life, warm-blooded animals maintain their body temperature above ambient and thus radiate heat and feel warm to touch. (The use of "hot" and "cool" in reference to Jazz is another story, one I'd love to go into sometime, but a digression too far for this essay). In the Capgras Delusion one can recognise loved ones, or in one recent case one's own reflection, in the sense of seeing and identifying all the details, but a brain injury prevents the connection of the visual details with the emotional response that typically goes with familiarity. The person with Capgras cannot understand the disconnection and typically confabulates a story that the loved one has been replaced by a replica.

On the whole human beings are not moved by bare facts. But it's worse than this. On the whole we see people who try to communicate solely in terms of facts extremely negatively; as cold, unemotional, uncaring, and inhuman. The whole point of the Mr Spock character in Star Trek was that his emotions were just below the surface and constantly threatened to burst out. And even if they did not his apparent coldness highlighted his limitations in dealing with humans, and acted as a contrast to the hot-blooded impulsiveness of Captain Kirk. They were a team that only really functioned well together. And on the contrary people who emotionally communicate a clear sense of values can often get away with being completely irrational.

It's interesting that nature documentaries are a clear exception to this cold style of communication of science. TV producers know that the audience are drawn into their work by drama and intrigue. The facts have to be woven into a narrative which creates an emotional resonance. David Attenborough is a master of this. His documentaries draw the audience in by portraying life as a drama with archetypal characters. This enables the audience to identify with the "characters". This was also part of the fascination with Jane Goodall's work on the chimps at Gombe stream. Her approach of using names helped us to come into relationship with the chimps, to glimpse ourselves in their games, loves, and struggles. And perhaps this dramatic style is a hint to those who would communicate about evolution to a wider audience? We want to know, above all, why we should care about evolution. 

I began writing this essay just after reading Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow. In the preface he evinces surprise that his book The Selfish Gene convinced people that he was a nihilist who saw no value in life (he describes people as machines). People apparently often ask him how he even gets out of bed in the morning with his bleak outlook on life. Unweaving the Rainbow is his attempt to show that he is anything a nihilist, that he is alive to the wonder and mystery of life and the poetry of the universe, and is fully convinced that we all should be awed and amazed simply to be alive. He tries to tell the reader that curiosity and fascination with life is what gets him out of bed in the morning. I suggest that part of the problem with The Selfish Gene as literature was that it was not consciously concerned with communicating a sense of values, though I would say that it did unconsciously communicate the values of Neoliberalism. I'm ambivalent at best about his writing and opinions, but no doubt Dawkins has values. However, these values are unspoken in much of his intellectual work, precisely because the academic ideal is to emotional content of communication: the myth of the objective, dispassionate point of view. This has real value in the pursuit of science, but not in communicating to ordinary people. Unweaving the Rainbow appears to be trying to address this point, though I suspect given the low profile the book has in his oeuvre it is rather too oblique. Also a good chunk of the book resorts to being rude about the people he seems to most want to convert to his views; religious believers. He just can't seem to help himself. Whatever his merits as a genetic scientist, Richard Dawkins seems not to understand people very well.


We tend to blame religious people for their failure to embrace evolution. On the contrary I say we can lay the failure to communicate evolution squarely at the door of scientists. They have education and access to the resources, but they squander them. There's a movement in the UK to promote the public understanding of science which is doing great work. Choosing good communicators like David Attenborough, Jim Al Khalili, or Alice Roberts to front TV shows and make public appearances is helpful because they humanise the communication. It doesn't hurt that some of them are very attractive as well as intelligent, but the key to their success seems to be their personal enthusiasm for, and ability to speak clearly on, their subject; and their ability to help us understand why what they are talking about matters. 

The success of any communication between two people depends on their being empathy between them at the outset. If what we are trying to communicate is counter-intuitive then we have a difficult job to show why the idea is still plausible. If the people we are trying to communicate have an emotional investment in some other explanation, then we can improve our chances by trying to understand their values and concerns and addressing them. None of this is rocket science. And the people who are doing the communicating are scientists.

As with Buddhism the process and ideals of science are, generally speaking, admirable in the abstract. But the people involved introduce an element of imperfection. The perfect instantiation of science or Buddhism has yet to arise. Tolerance is called for. Both of religious believers and of scientists, even if we do expect more of the latter. 



1. Speciation:
  • Boxhorn, Joseph. 'Observed Instances of Speciation.' The TalkOrigins Archive
  • Stassen, Chris. Some More Observed Speciation Events.  The TalkOrigins Archive
  • MacNeill, Allen. 'Macroevolution: Examples and Evidence.' The Evolution List. [draws on Boxhorn; the comments on this blog post are well worth reading as well!]
  • Zimmer, Carl. A New Step In Evolution. The Loom, Science Blogs. Observations of bacteria evolving a new metabolic pathway. 

Margulis, Lynn. (1998) The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.

11 March 2011

A Theory of Language Evolution (with a footnote about mantra)

I HAVE BEEN READING The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger. It is a book with some flaws, which I'm not going to dwell on, but on the whole Metzinger presents a fascinating theory of consciousness, selfhood, and self-consciousness. Metzinger is a philosopher, so is concerned to give an overview and to create a coherent narrative of consciousness, but his source materials are the findings of neuroscience, along with his own out-of-body experiences and lucid dreams. The combination is intriguing because though he fits in with a scientific, even materialistic, world-view, he seeks a theory of consciousness which takes his unusual experiences seriously and explains them. This may make him unique in the field.

His opening sentence declares that he is setting out to convince us that there is no such thing as a self. In this he follows in the footsteps of Antonio Damasio whose book The Feeling Of What Happens I highly recommend. I want to come back to Metzinger's theory of consciousness in subsequent blog posts, but here to talk about a point he makes in passing in his chapter the 'Empathetic Ego'.

Recently neuroscientists discovered two related facts about the link between behaviour and the brain. When we see an object, groups of neurons associated with motor activity are active. These are called canonical neurons. When we perceive objects part of us is relating to them by imagining potential physical interactions, by how we might manipulate them. I'm reminded here of George Lakoff & Mark Johnson's theory of metaphor. They say that the metaphors which underlie our abstract language and thought are related to our physical interactions with the world. Hence we can say that we grasp an idea meaning that we understand the concept. (See Metaphors We Live By).

On the other hand we know that some neurons associated with motor activity -- called mirror neurons -- light up whether we are doing the action ourselves, or whether we are observing someone else doing it. In particular these mirror neurons seem to be active when we witness emotional states in other people and feel empathy with them. It seems that mirror neurons are involved in modelling the posture, gesture and facial expression we see in others, in order to understand the kinds of feelings we associate with that physical arrangement. This ability to sense emotions in others is quite accurate, and important for us social primates.

Metzinger speculates that these two types of neurons might have been associated with the development of communication and I want to run with this idea, and sketch out an idea about how language might have evolved.

Once we move beyond the very simple forms of animal life - the single celled organisms - and look at the way animals communicate there are clearly hierarchies. We all release chemical messengers, e.g. hormones, and these are sensed with the mouth and nose, or have a physical effect on us. The other form of communication shared by all animals is posture - and posture is one of the basic activators for the canonical and mirror neurons. Posture can communicate attitude - aggression, receptivity (for mating), submission or dominance. But not much beyond this. Think of reptiles.

Subtlety begins to emerge when we employ three other forms of communication. Over posture we note that reptiles will sometimes reinforce posture with sound, although reptilian sounds don't add much to the message. Birds developed elaborate postural displays, and added more complex sounds to the mix. These sounds mainly seem to transmit the the message conveyed by posture -- e.g. territorial displays, or receptivity to mating -- but over a broader area. In other words, birds can broadcast their posture. Mammals, however, are capable of producing more sophisticated sounds, though these are still related to fairly basic 'emotions' like fear, contentment, receptivity, and aggression.

Some mammals added gesture, a more subtle form of posture, to the mix. Gesture allows for more nuanced communication. Then primates in particular added facial expression to this mix. With these one can communicate a wider range of emotions. Scholars have come up with many lists of basic emotions which overlap but do not converge. However, any list would contain some common items, for instance: anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, desire. All of these, and many variations can be accurately communicated without any words through posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression.

With posture, non-language verbal sounds, gesture, and facial expression we can communicate the full range of human emotions. However there is not much scope for abstraction, no possibility of communicating outside the immediate present. And in fact we share this level of communication with other primates. We do know that chimps are capable passing on knowledge of tool use, of planning, and getting others to cooperate in group actions that require forward thinking - war and hunting. So this level of communication is quite sophisticated, but language is orders of magnitude more sophisticated again.

Language sits on top of all of this. You would be forgiven for thinking that language existed apart from all of this because linguists seldom make reference to non-linguistic communication, and are often focussed on just the words involved in language, or even just written language. As I mentioned, Lakoff & Johnson have argued that the metaphors which underlie the our abstract though are based in our physical interactions with the world. So native English speakers know the metaphor that up is good (on the whole) and down is bad: e.g. a good mood is up; optimists feel things are looking up etc. (Similar metaphors are found in Sanskrit btw.). Similarly, in discussions we employ the argument is war metaphor: we take sides and defend positions against opponents; a vigorous exchange involves cut and thrust; we line points up and shoot them down; and we win if our points are on target or we exploit a weakness, or lose when our argument is undermined or demolished; we love to drop bombshells, and overturn paradigms, but hate to capitulate and back down. This suggests that language doesn't jut sit on top of the under-layers of physical, emotional communication, but is deeply rooted in them, and perhaps emerges out of them. We can't really consider language separately from gesture for instance, or from posture, or tone of voice.

Further support for this idea comes from research on the Brocas area of the brain. This region is intimately connected with language, but is also part of the system that controls motor function in the mouth and hands. V. S. Ramacandran (in his 2003 Reith Lectures) speculated that cross-activation in this area is responsible for the tongue poking out during intense concentration on manual tasks for instance, and that this is related to the evolution of language. Gestures, mouth movements and language are obviously connected. People can communicate complex abstract language with only their hands.

Vocal sounds are, at least some of the time, used symbolically and the study of this phenomenon is called Sound Symbolism or Phonosemantics. The roots of sound symbolism may be in pre-language sounds which communicate emotions, and in mouth movements which either directly interact with an object, or imitate an interaction. In which case we would expect that both canonical and mirror neurons would be involved in the language as well - I'm not sure if anyone has looked at this.

One of the central dictates of modern linguistics is that "the sign is arbitrary". This is usually qualified by saying that it is arbitrary but not random, since clearly conventions of sounds are seen. Sound symbolism takes this further by saying that the conventions are so pervasive and they represent such a high a level of organisation that they cannot be arbitrary. Indeed it would be surprising if verbal sounds were arbitrary in relation to the concept being conveyed because they would exist outside the structure of language itself. Lakoff & Johnson say that abstractions are not arbitrary, but rooted in how we physically interact with the world. Sound symbolism tells us that there is a relationship between a word and it's meaning which is not arbitrary, but related to how verbal sounds function as symbols.

So Metzinger's theory is interesting because we can construct a plausible narrative about the evolution of communication around it, and it links up with other interesting ideas about the brain, the mind, and the evolution of language. It can incorporate many different observations, and it dovetails with other theories of embodied awareness and communication. It certainly seems to tie together many of my own interests. Though I note that one reviewer of The Ego Tunnel complained that "Grandiose philosophy is so 19th-century". [1] So perhaps Metzinger and I, with our interest in such "grandiose philosophy", are out of step with contemporary philosophy - but there have been few ages when being out of step with contemporary philosophers has been a bad thing. Personally I think Metzinger is ahead of his time.

This is not idle speculation on my part, nor only a side line. This idea has been bubbling away in my Buddhist brain because I am fascinated by Buddhist mantra. Mantras are said to be sound symbols, and I'm interested in how verbal sounds function as symbols. I believe that this sketch of a theory, or something very like it, might begin to explain the effectiveness of Buddhist mantras both as a collective, devotional practice, and in individual meditative practice -- without resort to the supernatural.


  1. Flanagan, O. (2009). Review: The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger. New Scientist, 201(2700), 44.

image: Rhetorical gestures. Wikimedia.

26 December 2008

Communicating the Dharma

The experience of bodhi was always going to be difficult to describe and explain. This is dramatised in the well known story from the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the Buddha wondering whether it would be possible at all, and then being begged by Brahmā Sahampati to teach the Dharma. Of course any experience is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't had the same experience, especially if it is something entire new. A simile would be explaining the colour red to someone blind from birth.

Sometimes it seems as though traditional Buddhism considers that the Buddha had a single decisive experience that he then set about teaching about it for 45 years. Clearly this is an over simplification. But what was it like for the Buddha? What kind of process did he go through in order to assimilate his insight? Two suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya give a small window into this process. I suppose them to reflect a very early period of the Buddha's career.

The two suttas (SN 45.11 and 45.12) are identical except for a minor detail - the period of seclusion. In each the Buddha tells his companions that he wishes to go into seclusion for either half a month, or for three months, and that no one should approach him except to bring him alms food. When the Buddha returns he announces to the bhkkkhus:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening.
Now this is really very interesting. The Buddha is here shown to go back to dwell in the region (padesa) of his insight. Note that the metaphor is spacial - he was going back to the same 'space' as we might say. Now this phrase, as far as I can determine only occurs in these two texts, but is quoted from these texts in the Visuddhimagga (XVII,9 : p.594). Buddhaghosa uses the content of these suttas to argue against simple dependent origination and I don't plan to deal with that here. He does gloss padesa as "one part" suggesting that the Buddha dwelt in or on only some aspect of his immediate post-awakening experience.

The Buddha then attempts to convey something of what he has understood in the process. He begins: So evaṃ pajānāmi - "thus I have understood it", or "I know thus". The Sanskrit verbal root of pajānāmi is one that should be familiar to all Buddhists: jñā, which is related to our words 'know' and 'gnosis' and has much the same sense as the these English words.

In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā). He says that there are sensations associated with the various aspects of the Eightfold path: wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi), and right or perfect view (sammādiṭṭhi) - up to wrong concentration (micchāsamādhi) and perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi). Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.

So what can we make of this. Firstly let me say that it is not immediately obvious. There are some inconsistencies here if this text is describing an early period in the Buddha's career. One of the things that happens with texts is that over time they start to become formulaic. Things start to be quoted as lists, and further on when there is an obvious progression the list can be, as it is here, abbreviated by the word 'pe'. Many examples of less formulaic, more spontaneous sounding suttas can be found for example in the Sutta Nipātta, which for that reason, amongst others, is considered to be an earlier strata of the canon. Now, if this was some new insight that the Buddha was bringing back from his revisiting of the immediate post-enlightenment space, I hardly think he'd skip over the details of it. So both the presence of the eight-fold path, and the fact that it is abbreviated suggest that the sutta was composed rather late in the process of the creation of the Canon. Perhaps this passage was inserted at a later time; perhaps it was edited at a later time; perhaps the conjecture that the sutta relates to the Buddha's early career is just wrong.

The linking of "desire, thinking, and perceptions" is a collocation that I am unfamiliar with. In fact it doesn't seem to form a natural list at all. And this may be a sign again, of a poor job of later editing, or of a much less systematic presentation of the Buddha's insights. Notice also that the text says that even in the absence of these three that there is vedanā - sensation.

I begin to suspect that words are being used in way with which I am unfamiliar, so let's check a few definitions. Vedanā is built on the root vid "to know" from which we get many familiar words such as veda, and vidya. The verb form vedeti actually has a two-fold meaning according to the PED: in the intellectual sphere it can mean "to know", and more generally "to experience". I am so used to seeing vedanā used in a technical sense, that it can be easy to forget that it has other connotations! I think vedanā is being used in a more general sense of experience because if we use it in the more traditional sense we find logical inconsistencies.

Vitakka is an interesting choice here. Again it is more familiar as a technical term relating to meditation and the establishment of concentration. More generally it means "reflection, thought, thinking" - the vi- prefix can mean divided or expanding, and in the latter sense is used as an intensifier, and takka means "twisting or turning", and in an applied sense "doubt, a doubtful view, hair-splitting". I think we can take vitakka here as "turning something over in the mind", we might translate this as "reflection" (from Latin: reflex-, pp. stem of reflectere, from re- "back" + flectere "to bend." Online Etymological Dictionary).

Saññā is saṃ- + jñā so means literally "complete knowing". It is used in the senses of: "sense, consciousness, perception; discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness; conception, notion, idea; sign, gesture, token, mark". Technically it means the recognition of a vedanā, but it must be being used in a different sense here because it functions as a condition for vedanā, not the other way around! I think its being used in the sense of consciousness or awareness generally.

The Buddha is saying that in the absence of affective responses to experience; the absence of intellectual responses to experience; and the absence of being aware in it's more fundamental sense: there is still experience! Were on the home straight now. I think the Buddha is saying that there is an experience beyond normal everyday experiences, which causes one to stretch out to something as yet unattained. There are a couple of synonyms in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya no. 2) where it talks about the Buddha stretching and reaching out (abhinīharati abhininnāmeti) with his mind (citta) towards knowledge of other peoples minds, his own previous existences, and of the passing away and arising of beings; and in the culmination of the Awakening experience his mind stretches out towards knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavas) (D.i 79-84).

This may sound quite jejune to the contemporary Buddhist. But I go back to my original conjecture that this is likely to be an early discourse - edited perhaps but at least based on an actual early occasion. The Buddha is trying to explain something entirely new to his followers, to his new followers. And perhaps they, like us, are caught up in the magic show of sensory experience. The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. There is an air of mystery in this text. I find it a little difficult to believe that this will have been all the Buddha said on such an occasion. The Buddha usually also set out a method for his disciples to follow, but this is all that has been recorded by the tradition.

I think we may have here a somewhat fragmentary edited version of what it might have been like for the Buddha in the early days of his mission. He dwelt in states that had never been attained before, and therefore never described. He did not set out to create a new vāda or religious dogma, but tried to base his teaching in experience; and tried to devise methods for his disciples to achieve the same thing, and to motivate them to try it. This meant in part that he had to use language in new and interesting ways, and fortunately for us he had some genius in this area!


22 January 2006

Giving Feedback

We're often in a position where we judge that it's necessary to give someone some feedback. It might be a work situation, or it maybe that one of our friends is doing something which we are sure they will regret. I find giving feedback quite difficult and have been surprised by the reactions I get sometimes. When I asked my friend Saddharaja about this, he pointed me in the direction of the Vaca Sutta, which gives some advice about this situation.

"Bhikkhus, speech that is well spoken, not badly spoken, is blameless and worthy for the wise, has five characteristics. Which five?

It is spoken at the proper time. It is spoken truthfully. It is spoken gently. It is said in connection with the goal of Awakening. Speak with a heart [full] of loving kindness.

By these five factors is speech well spoken, not badly spoken, is blameless and worthy for the wise."

Anguttara Niakaya (V.198) My translation. See also Access to Insight

So when giving feedback we need to consider these five factors.

1. The proper time to speak
Pick your moment. Is it a good time for the other person? Is there time to follow up? Is this the right place? Public criticism is unlikely to be effective. Try to take into account the person's mental state - have they recently been getting a lot of criticism, have they been ill, had a bereavement? Are you in a good state? Is the other person ready to hear what you have to say? Sometimes we need to be prepared to wait.

2. Truthfulness
Stick to the facts, be straight forward. Do you know the facts? Stick to things that can be observed - don't make assumptions, and especially try to not second guess what someone else is thinking. Do no exagerate or minimise. Watch for your own biases - if you are angry you are unlikely to be able to do this for instance. It may mean that rather than criticising someone else when you are angry, that you apply the criteria to yourself and confess your anger instead!
Truth has a particular power in the Buddhist tradition. There are several stories where the speaking aloud of a simple truth, the sacca-kiriya or Act of Truth, changes the course of events. Angulimala, for instance, eases a woman's painful childbirth by stating that since his noble birth, he has not intentionally killed any living being. There are many Jataka stories with a similar theme.

Always keep in mind that the truth can be painful to hear, and that you might not posess the truth!

3. Softly and Gently
Speak gently and kindly. Be respectful. Calm, reasonable and clear. If you can't do this then reconsider giving feedback. Never swear or use harsh language. The reason for this is that if you start to yell and use harsh speech then you will almost certainly cause the other person to be defensive. They will rightly fear for their safety, because you are allowing your anger to control you. If your anger is controlling you then there is no telling what you might do!
Any drama that you bring to the situation will detract from the message that you are trying to get across. But recall that we are being truthful, so there is no need to go soft on the issue.

4. For the purpose of Awakening
Your goal in giving feedback should be the highest goal. If you are simply indulging your likes and dislikes then that is quite ignoble, according to the Buddha. You might ask yourself, who will benefit if I get the change of behaviour that I am seeking? Is it only me? How will the other person benefit if I tell them what I wish to tell them. In fact if you are simply trying to get someone to conform to your will, then you are doing them a violence.

If you are seeking a change in behaviour then offer a towards (desirable behaviour) and an away (undesirable behaviour) when asking for a change in behaviour. Just telling someone to stop doing something is less likely to work than asking them to start doing something else. But remember that they must be free to decline your request. Coercion of any kind will not conduce to the good.

Are you the right person to give the feedback - maybe it would be better coming from someone else?

5. From a loving heart
Your every word should come from Loving Kindness. This is not restricted to criticism of course but goes much much deeper. In fact you could almost say that if you are not communicating metta then better to do as Shantideva suggests and act like a block of wood. It may be that you need to hold back on giving your feedback until you have had a chance to develop a loving heart towards the other person, perhaps by putting them in the fourth stage of your mettabhavana.
So these are the five factors to consider. There will be times, of course, when it seems unwise to pause to reflect on all of these factors - if our friend is about to step into the road not having seen an approaching car for instance. In that case, of course, we simply act. But in most cases there is time to reflect, and it will be useful to do so.

Making connections with other people is vitally important to our well-being, but also to our Buddhist practice. Bungled feedback is a common way in which we fail to make connections, or we attenuate or even sever, the connections we already have. Repairing rifts, and restoring harmony in the Sangha takes much more time and energy than maintaining good communication.

10 December 2005

Cellphones, communications and communities.

Some years ago I started a masters degree in computing. One of the first essays I had to write was on the impact of a technology on a society. Having recently read a Wired Magazine article that talked about the Amish and their relationship with the telephone I choose that as my subject.

The Amish are a fundamentalist Christian community which fled persecution in 17th century Europe, ending up mostly in the Eastern US. They have more or less preserved their old lifestyle that involves keeping themselves apart from non-believers. The Amish live a life of strict rules and a rather sombre simplicity. Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules, even family members risk being shunned. Children have more freedom until they are baptised and join the community of adults.

The Amish are often seen as technophobic farmers who still ride around in horse drawn buggies. Far from being reactionary Luddites however, the Amish are frequently early adopters of technology. In the early 20th century they were amongst the first communities to get the telephone. The Amish do not simply adopt technology, they go through a well defined procedure with a trial period and evaluation of the impact of the technology on their society. They ask, for instance: “will this bring us into unwanted contact with unbelievers?” Mains electricity fails this test and so the Amish do not use it, although this does not preclude the use of electricity per se. The Amish value manual work and any technology that might put a person out of work is rejected out of hand. Another important criterion is the integrity of their community, and so they ask: “will this help bring us together, or will it take people away from the community”.

This last criterion was important in the Amish response to the telephone. It was recognised that the telephone could provide links between communities, and between distant family members. There was a clear danger, however, that the telephone would cause people to look beyond the family and local community. So they came to a compromise position: telephones were OK, but not inside a family home where it might interrupt family life; and it would be preferable if several households shared a telephone. Jump forward 100 years and not much has changed. More Amish now work in carpentry creating simple but solid furniture which they mostly sell to outsiders. These shops tend to have telephones, which are strictly for business. One or two actually have a computer, but an outsider must be employed to operate it. Howard Reingold, the Wired reporter, writes that he observed a young Amish woman talking on a cellphone.

In Western society we have been thoroughly infected with the telephone, and the cellphone is now almost endemic. Some people have two. Now we can be contacted, or interrupted, anytime and anywhere. Provided there is coverage of course. The mobile started out as a Yuppie accessory that was derided by right-thinking people. Nowadays many people still deride cellphones, lament the intrusiveness of them, and resist owning or using them.

I’m interested in the success of the cellphone. These things don’t happen by accident. My understanding of the phenomena combines two sources: Jane Goodall’s book In the Shadow of Man which contains her observations of the Gombe stream chimpanzees; and Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium Is the Massage.

We are social animals, who function best in a social group. Really large groups of us naturally fragment in to cliques. We like groups of nine plus or minus two. Negotiating the dynamics of social groups takes time and energy but the evolutionary pay-off has been enormous: language for instance!

A feature of Western societies is fragmentation. Not so many decades ago most of us would have been a member of a local community. Here in England you would have been additionally marked by a distinctive accent by which people could pinpoint your birthplace, in some cases to the actual town or village! With mobile populations and urban drift we increasingly find ourselves surrounded by strangers. This can be very stressful for us social primates. So we compensate by forming cliques based on such things as religion or a common interest such as sport. Community is not an optional extra for us, and loss of community or isolation can be devastating. Solitary confinement is considered a harsh, even cruel, punishment. The impact of loss of community on various indigenous peoples, in the wake of European colonisation, has been devastating. When you compare rates of crime, substance abuse, and mental illness with the Amish they start to look as though they might be onto something! (Which is not to suggest, by the way, that they don't have any problems at all).

Marshall McLuhan was not really a semiologist, but his most famous aphorism is “The medium is the message”. This is a semiotic statement in that he is telling us what media ‘means’. McLuhan, in trying to understand the role of technology in society, wanted to draw attention away from the content of media, towards the form of it. He considered the forms of communication media to be more significant that the content of them. He includes such things as alphabets, writing, and printing in this analysis. McLuhan saw technology as an extension of the human body or senses, but I think we need to add a dimension to this. It seems clear that the message of cellphones is “connecting to people, and creating a sense of belonging to a community”. So technology in this case is an extension, not just of an individual, but of the social aspect of human primates. It can be seen as a direct response to the collapse of local communities and our dispersal across the globe – my own family lives on three continents. These days I belong to the group defined by the numbers stored on my phone.

I see problems with this technological solution to fragmentation however. For instance there is no substitute for intimate personal contact, mutual grooming and eating each other’s ticks. We might forego the latter, but otherwise we are just like our primate cousins. Touch is an essential element in a healthy community. Without it we feel lonely and unhappy. The Amish know this and use telephones mainly to arrange face to face meetings.

The adoption of technology is relatively passive. We don’t ask the kind of penetrating questions that the Amish do about the impact of technology so we have whether it’s good or not. Perhaps we could argue that if it didn’t work then it wouldn’t be adopted. But if we have adopted the cell phone because we lack a sense of belonging, then we are just plastering over the cracks. A phone call might help us keep our community in line, but it is a simulacrum; it won’t satisfy. We aren’t addressing the real issue of alienation.

I’m a member of the community known as the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), and of its auxiliary: The Friends of the WBO (FWBO). Our community relies heavily on email and phone calls to organise and administer ourselves. Online forums are just starting to be used, and are frequently the medium of choice for dissent. Our founder, Sangharakshita, has said, “the group is always wrong”. By which he means that we must learn to think and act for ourselves, and not simply react in accord with the wishes of the majority, or from social conditioning. As Buddhists we are trying to free ourselves from stereotypical responses, to be free to make appropriate responses to the world. To do this we must bring our experience of the world into full consciousness – we must understand where our ideas and habits come from. This is not easy in a society, because groups of people are frequently intolerant of novel behaviour. The Amish practice of shunning is only a more explicit version how groups control the individuals that make them up. Isolation is painful, and we therefore will go out of our way to avoid it.

If we use technological solutions to plaster over the cracks of our feelings of alienation, then we are asking for trouble. Alienation is not the same as individuation. Spiritual growth, the revolutionary awareness that can ultimately set us free, depends on us taking responsibility for the contents of our minds. We can’t avoid taking on board social conditioning as we grow up, but we can, as self-aware adults, start to examine that conditioning. But it requires awareness. We must be prepared to sit with the pain of alienation to some extent, to see what it really is and where it comes from.

The FWBO has tended to take Sangharakshita’s aphorism a bit literally at times, and so I don’t think we cater well for the social needs of our people. We have seen groups as a literal enemy and a desire for belonging as an almost fatal weakness. It is said that one of the reasons that Buddhism died out in India, and Hinduism did not, is that the former lost touch with the common people, while the latter did not. The Amish with their strong social integrity can effectively limit the impact that technology has on them. It may be too late for the rest of us, but I think we can learn from the Amish approach to society and technology.

So I’ll finish with my own aphorism:

The best possible use of a cellphone is to arrange to meet with your friends.