Category Archives: hierarchy

2020-06-06 Check-in topics

Here are some of the topic references Scott, Paul, Edward, and Mark discussed during today’s check-in. If these provoke any thoughts, please feel free to reply by comment below this article or by reply to all from the associated email message from Cogniphile.

Socio-economic and political:

  • Alternate social and economic system –
  • Dark Horse podcast (Weinstein) ep. 19 on co-presidency idea
  • How could a shift to voting on issues rather than representatives work? What are the potential challenges? How could it be better? (There’s not a lot of easily discoverable analysis on this.)
  • Perspective: Despite our challenges and structural societal issues, most people in the U.S. enjoy more security—i.e., most Americans don’t need to worry about being violently attacked or starving to death. I think we agreed on this general point. It in no way lessens the obvious needs for systemic improvements.

    I add an after note, however, that a succession of unfortunate events, especially if medical issues and their crippling expenses are involved, can quickly deplete the average American’s finances and put them on the streets. A homeless person’s capacity to be resourceful literally includes their ability to carry and protect resources which become much more difficult to retain due to space in a car (or backpack) and increased exposure to crime. Social stigma becomes self-reinforcing to the homeless person and we who encounter them. Nearly all doors close. ‘Structural invisibility’ results—’society’ just stops seeing them (or can only see them as choosing or deserving their situations) and predators take society’s disregard as open season on the homeless.

    So, while it is true the threshold of personal disaster is farther from the average American than from the average, say, Zimbabwean or Eritrean, once an American crosses that threshold it can certainly be a devastating and nearly intractable circumstance. There are many trap doors leading down and few ladders leading back up. Thoughts?

Entertainment we’ve enjoyed recently:

  • Edward: Killing Eve – Bored British intelligence agent, Eve, is overly interested in female assassins, their psychologies and their methods of killing. She is recruited by a secret division within MI6 chasing an international assassin who calls herself Villanelle. Eve crosses paths with Villanelle and discovers that members within both of their secret circles may be more interconnected than she is comfortable with. Both women begin to focus less on their initial missions in order to desperately learn more about the other.
  • Mark: Devs (FX network sci-fi thriller series) – Atmospherically dark and brooding exploration of the implications of a quantum computing system capable of peering into past and future. Also a meditation on two competing physics theories, deterministic and indeterministic (Copenhagen interpretation – aka, ‘many worlds,’ ‘multiple universes’). From a genre perspective, it is a thriller.
  • Scott: After Life (Ricky Gervais) – follows Tony, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies from breast cancer. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants.
  • Paul: Exhalation (book of short sci-fi stories) Ted Chiang

    Mark would like to base a few future discussions on the following stories:
    • The Lifecycle of Software Objects “follows Ana Alvarado over a twenty-year period, during which she “raises” an artificial intelligence from being essentially a digital pet to a human-equivalent mind.”
    • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling – A study in memory and meaning told from interwoven future and past stories. “a journalist observes how the world, his daughter, and he himself are affected by ‘Remem’, a form of lifelogging whose advanced search algorithms effectively grant its users eidetic memory of everything that ever happened to them, and the ability to perfectly and objectively share those memories. In a parallel narrative strand, a Tiv [African tribal] man is one of the first of his people to learn to read and write, and discovers that this may not be compatible with oral tradition.” (Wikipedia)
    • The Great Silence – Mutimedia collaboration version here. An earthbound alien wonders about humanity’s fascination with missing space aliens and lack of interest of intelligences among us.
    • Omphalos – On an Earth on which science has long-since proven the planet is precisely as old as the bible states, an anthropologist following the trail of a fake artifact stumbles onto a shattering discovery.
    • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom (title is a Kirkegaard quote) – “the ability to glimpse into alternate universes necessitates a radically new examination of the concepts of choice and free will.” (SFWA)

  • Scott: Who are some of your favorite fiction authors?


How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

This article is relevant to our recent discussions and Zak Stein’s (see Edward’s recent post) suggestion that great destabilizing events open gaps in which new structures can supplant older, disintegrating systems–with the inherent risks and opportunities.

Living in the future’s past

I watched a good documentary last night titled, Living in the Future’s Past, a project organized, produced, and narrated by Jeff Bridges. It’s available through your Albuquerque Public Library account’s access to Hoopla Digital, Amazon Prime video, and other services. It lays out the modern dilemma of having a pre-neolithic brain in a Neolithic era and posits several questions that align closely with the theme of our current discussion . The film has commentary from diverse scientific experts, including Daniel Goldman (emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness). The upshot is a recurring suggestion our current brain functionality is capable of reframing our perspective and modulating our perceptions and behaviors around carefully constructed focal questions that get at what sort of future(s) we desire. I like this approach—so well in fact that I Had reserved some web domains months ago:,,, and These domains are not active yet. They will relate to the novel I’m writing and to a related non-fiction project. Edward is onto an important approach in looking to semantics (framing, etc.).

Also, on a short-term level, cultural evolution (including language and semantics) appears much more potent a driver than physiological evolution. Given that, I recently purchased a book by an author who goes into great depth on cultural evolution. The book is Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, by Cecelia Heyes. I may put it forward for a future discussion.

Book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

In his new book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David J. Epstein investigates the significant advantages of generalized cognitive skills for success in a complex world. We’ve heard and read many praises for narrow expertise in both humans and AIs (Watson, Alpha Go, etc.). In both humans and AIs, however, narrow+deep expertise does not translate to adaptiveness when reality presents novel challenges, as it does constantly. 

As you ingest this highly readable, non-technical book, please add your observations to the comments below. 

the evolution of synergy

Good quick summary of some of Deacon’s ideas. Deacon: “We need to stop thinking about hierarchic evolution in simple Darwinian terms. We need to think about it both in terms of selection and the loss of selection or the reduction of selection. And that maybe it’s the reduction of selection that’s responsible for the most interesting features” (9:40).

Neural Correlates of Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning

The abstract from this article:

“Going back to Kohlberg, moral development research affirms that people progress through different stages of moral reasoning as cognitive abilities mature. Individuals at a lower level of moral reasoning judge moral issues mainly based on self-interest (personal interests schema) or based on adherence to laws and rules (maintaining norms schema), whereas individuals at the post-conventional level judge moral issues based on deeper principles and shared ideals. However, the extent to which moral development is reflected in structural brain architecture remains unknown. To investigate this question, we used voxel-based morphometry and examined the brain structure in a sample of 67 Master of Business Administration (MBA) students. Subjects completed the Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) which measures moral development in terms of cognitive schema preference. Results demonstrate that subjects at the post-conventional level of moral reasoning were characterized by increased gray matter volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, compared with subjects at a lower level of moral reasoning. Our findings support an important role for both cognitive and emotional processes in moral reasoning and provide first evidence for individual differences in brain structure according to the stages of moral reasoning first proposed by Kohlberg decades ago.”

Analysis of inept interviewer raises several interesting questions

Misleading and sensationalist news personalities have ceased to be noteworthy. They are the norm in American mainstream media. Interviewers strive to oversimplify and shape guests’ messages–tactics interviewees who are good communicators can cast in sharp relief. Experts tend to present information in systemic, relational, and process terms no longer welcome in or compatible with the aims of popular media outlets.

A fascinating article in The Atlantic not only surfaces these tactics (which may have become habits more than deliberate interviewing methods) but highlights the challenge any expert or systems thinker faces when attempting to convey concepts of any complexity or nuance.

I also found the interviewee’s (a sociologist) points very interesting in themselves. For example,

Peterson (expert): There’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. I use the lobster as an example: We diverged from lobsters evolutionarily history about 350 million years ago. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. They have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin just like ours. The nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.

Newman (journalist): Let me get this straight. You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?

It would be funny as an SNL skit, but as a supposed demonstration of professional journalism, it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs.

More in line with this group’s focus is Peterson’s point on the evolutionary reality of the hierarchical organization of species, including humans. Of course, this was not a moral or political statement, but a reference to neurochemical bases for perceptions and behaviors.

I appreciate that in our discussions we can press into more nuanced conceptual territories than Ms. Newman was willing to allow Dr. Peterson.