Category Archives: biology

Are We Racists?

BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.


Two Levels of Racism
 
1. Population Group Level
 
Racism is an expression of group dynamics. Consider two levels of racism. First, there’s systemic racism where conditions in a population generally favor one race over others. One race (or maybe a few races) has greater access to material and cultural influence in the population. This does not occur accidentally, but through the ongoing efforts of the dominant group to achieve and expand its controlling influence.
 
2. Individual and Local-Group Level
 
That’s where the second level of racism comes in. How a person perceives any group’s efforts to attain equal access and influence depends on whether the person is in the dominant group or the aspiring group. There are many ways individuals and their affinity groups perceive and act within the racially unequal system to maintain or change the racial inequalities. The group in power perceives efforts in its favor as good, appropriate, justified, patriotic, necessary, ethical, moral, and even (when there’s a shared group supernatural narrative) ordained, holy, etc. When a member of an out-group appears to support (or at least not outwardly oppose) the in-group’s dominance, members of the in-group view that as a proof that they are rightfully on top.
 
The group in power perceives any questioning of its dominance in the larger population as suspicious, dishonest, lazy (attempts to gain more access than is deserved), subversive, unpatriotic (or even treasonous), or (through the lens of dogma) evil, anti-God, etc. Obviously, racism (and other efforts to maintain inequality) is at work when these perceptions are acted out by legislators, law enforcers, prosecutors, juries, judges, presidents and their staff members, the private sector, and individual members of the favored group.
 
Members of a group with less influence perceive their questioning of the dominant group’s power in opposite terms from how the dominant group sees their struggle. Members of lower-access groups experience their quest for equality on all fronts as expressions of their inherent right–even necessity–to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness.” They see the efforts of dominant groups to control and exclude them as unjustified oppression by people who abuse the power provided them within a biased system that clearly needs to be changed.
 
On the first (population) level, racism is an aspect of the in-group/out-group dynamics that are present in all of us. Our ‘hard-wired’ programming is to subconsciously favor those we perceive to be more like us (in outward appearance, views, and culture) and subconsciously feel some degree of aversion and suspicion (and often fear) of those whose appearances, views, and culture vary from ours. Groups (through the actions of their members and leaders) use their power to slant social and economic systems to favor their own power and influence and to decrease the influence of those they perceive as not members of their group(s). When this natural bias results in one racial group having greater access to resources (education, healthcare, emergency services, and other public services; jobs; legislative influence; judicial equality; media visibility; etc.), systemic or structural racism is in place.
 
A takeaway of all this is that we are all racists, in the sense that the human brain has evolved complex social navigation functions that include strong biases in favor of one’s perceived in-group and disfavoring members of all other groups. To the extent we are hard-wired to perceive people who (as a category) look superficially different from us as somehow less safe or worthy of inclusion and power-sharing, we are innately racist. When we make the effort to become aware of, challenge, and ensure our racial biases do not influence our words and actions, we are moving toward a less bigoted way of being.

Daniel Dennett on the evolution of the mind

The Google talk on his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. The blurb:

“How did we come to have minds? For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery. That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.”

Future discussion topic recommendations

Several of us met on Labor Day with the goal of identifying topics for at least five future monthly meetings. (Thanks, Dave N, for hosting!) Being the overachievers we are, we pushed beyond the goal. Following are the resulting topics, which will each have its own article on this site where we can begin organizing references for the discussion:

  • sex-related influences on emotional memory
    • gross and subtle brain differences (e.g., “walls of the third ventricle – sexual nuclei”)
    • “Are there gender-based brain differences that influence differences in perceptions and experience?”
    • epigenetic factors (may need an overview of epigenetics)
  • embodied cognition
    • computational grounded cognition (possibly the overview and lead-in topic)
    • neuro-reductionist theory vs. enacted theory of mind
    • “Could embodied cognition influence brain differences?” (Whoever suggested this, please clarify.)
  • brain-gut connection (relates to embodied cognition, but can stand on its own as a topic)
  • behavioral priming (one or multiple discussions)
  • neuroscience of empathy – effects on the brain, including on neuroplasticity
  • comparative effects of various meditative practices on the brain
  • comparative effects of various psychedelics on the brain
  • effects of childhood poverty on the brain

If I missed anything, please edit the list (I used HTML in the ‘Text’ view to get sub-bullets). If you’re worried about the formatting, you can email your edits to cogniphile@albuquirky.net and Mark will post your changes.

Mathematical field of topology reveals importance of ‘holes in brain’

New Scientist article: Applying the mathematical field of topology to brain science suggests gaps in densely connected brain regions serve essential cognitive functions. Newly discovered densely connected neural groups are characterized by a gap in the center, with one edge of the ring (cycle) being very thin. It’s speculated that this architecture evolved to enable the brain to better time and sequence the integration of information from different functional areas into a coherent pattern.

Aspects of the findings appear to support Edelman’s and Tononi’s (2000, p. 83) theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS, aka neural Darwinism).


Edelman, G.M. and Tononi, G. (2000). A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Basic Books.

Please recommend sources on the evolution of political impulses and thinking

In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).

Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:

Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)

This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.

Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:

Edward’s recommendations

Mark’s recommendations

15 Nov 16 Discussion on Transhumanism

Good discussion that covered a lot of ground. I took away that none of us have signed on to be early adopters of brain augmentations, but some expect development of body and brain augmentations to continue and accelerate. We also considered the idea of bio-engineered and medical paths to significant life-span, health, and cognitive capacity improvements. I appreciated the ethical and value questions (Why pursue any of this? What would/must one give up to become transhuman? Will the health and lifespan enhancements be equally available to all? What could be the downsides of extremely extended lives?) Also, isn’t there considerable opportunity for smarter transhumans, along with AI tools, to vastly improve the lives of many people by finding ways to mitigate problems we’ve inherited (disease, etc.) and created (pollution, conflict, etc.)?

Meaningful Transhumanism (H+)…

All bodily capacities, including the most impressive, uniquely human cognitive and metacognitive ones, coevolve with regulatory mechanisms. Regulatory mechanisms operate unconsciously, and control the expression of associated capacities such that the latter consistently operate with high effectiveness and efficiency to promote replication of our genes. So, to fundamentally change and render socioecologically sustainable the human species, H+ technologies will somehow have to alter the deep neural relationship between these regulatory “value systems,” (sensu neuroscientist Gerald Edelman in, “A Universe of Consciousness”), residing primarily in the limbic system, and all our mundane or enhanced corticothalamic activities. We need H+ that radically diminishes our transparent penchant for evolutionarily adaptive self-deception, and that alters our power to more freely and consciously choose, moment-to-moment, what we do with our cognitive capacities. I suspect current H+ is blind to this. — Warmly, PJW

TED Talk and PJW Comment

TED talk of possible interest:

Comment I posted there:
Here is an interdisciplinary “moon-shot” suggestion that we should at least start talking about, now, before it is too late. Let’s massively collaborate to develop a very mission-specific AI system to help us figure out, using emerging genetic editing technologies (e.g., CRISPR, etc.), ideally how to tweak (most likely) species-typical genes currently constraining our capacities for prosociality, biophilia, and compassion, so that we can intentionally evolve into a sustainable species. This is something that natural selection, our past and current psycho-eugenicist, will never do (it cannot), and something that our current genetic endowment will never allow cultural processes / social engineering approaches to adequately transform us. Purposed-designed AI systems feeding off of growing databases of intra-genomic dynamics and gene-environment interactions could greatly speed our understanding of how to make these genetic adjustments to ourselves, the only hope for our survival, in a morally optimal (i.e., fewest mistakes due to unexpected gene-gene and gene-regulatory (exome) and epigenetic interactions; fewest onerous side-effects) as well as in a maximally effective and efficient way. Come together, teams of AI scientists and geneticists! We need to grab our collective pan-cultural intrapsychic fate away from the dark hands of natural selection, and AI can probably help. END