Sunday, June 22, 2008

We flirt with Pollyanna, but we always go home to Cassandra

Phil Bowermaster decries our evolutionarily developed apprehension of future tragedy:
The other night on the podcast, I asked whether there is an advantage to having a bleak outlook on the future. I believe that there have been some historical advantages to having a negative outlook, but that the advantage has been variable throughout human evolution --sometimes you get a boost from being a pessimist, sometimes from being an optimist. But seeing as life was riskier in the short term for our ancestors, the more risk-averse pessimistic outlook took hold. We developed a natural fear of the future not too unlike our natural fear of the other.

In an evolutionary context, fear of the other is not necessarily a bad thing. If were talking about Homo Sapiens vs. Neanderthals or (earlier on) mammals vs. reptiles, an innate revulsion to the threatening other served to keep evolution moving in the right direction. Back then. Today, we need our fear of the other a lot less than we used to. I think it kicks in correctly if, say, you come home and find a stranger in your bedroom. But a "fear" of other cultures, races, religions, lifestyle choices, etc. is not helpful, notwithstanding the fact that major cultural artifacts, lets call them memeplexes, have been developed around this fear. These we know as xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, and other delights.

That's all fine and dandy, except that I don't think that our hunter/gatherer forbears had any meaningful concept of the future beyond the cycling of the seasons. Likewise, if the earliest religious traditions are a good judge of early man's proto-philosophy of time, then their concept of the distant future as well was cyclical, although that might be too colored by the impact of agricultural development, which required some planning beyond the current season's harvest. So I doubt that our most primitive forbears had any meaningful fears or hopes for the future.

The idea that the future might be drastically different than the present is a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. The pace of technological change has historically been so slow as to be considered nonexistent, from the perceptual viewpoint of any historical observer. Because of that I would have to conclude that our negative view of future change must be due to the fact that we are living in an environment, rapid social and technological change, that we are not evolutionarily adapted to. We're out of our league, and we know it.

But that is not Bowermaster's chief error in this essay. This is:
Ben Young argues that our obsession with bad outcomes has proven quite effective at reducing them, but that focusing more and more intently on tragedy and disaster acts as a kind of slow poison whereby our net happiness does not increase (in fact, it goes down) even as our circumstances improve. Our aversion to risk and bad outcomes becomes so pronounced that eventually we turn it on ourselves. In the end, it isn't just the optimists who need to be taken down a peg, it is all of humanity.
The irony is that the smart money -- if you look at the long-term trends, and don't just extrapolate to doomsday from your current negative indicators of choice -- says that in the future, the world will be cleaner and people will be freer, healthier, more prosperous, and less prone to violence than they are today; however, that world might not be a terribly happy place. If our fixation with disaster and intolerance of risk continue to grow at the same pace as our overall improvement of the world, the happiest era in the history of humanity might turn out to be the most miserable. (Arguably, we are experiencing something like that even today.)

Like our fear of the other, our fear of the future has limited applicability in our present circumstances. It is an evolutionary artifact which, by and large, needs to be suppressed. We must deal realistically with real threats, just as we need to be alarmed if we come home to find a stranger in our house. But we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future -- pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy -- are both factually and morally wrong.

Pessimism is the new racism, and we must start treating it as such.

This is just so silly on so many levels. For starters, if Bowermaster thinks future fears are increasing in intensity, then he just doesn't know that much about history. Compare today's angst against the end of days panic that gripped the Jewish nation in the first century. How many people that you know are joining end of world cults, renouncing sex and liquidating their 401k programs to be free of earthly possessions in time for the Apocalypse?

I have been known to take Cassandras to task on this blog, especially those of the "worship of suffering" persuasion. But I've never advocated suspending all skepticism of a rosy future. Long time Duckians/Juddians will remember my epic battles with the forces of rosy optimism regarding the prices of oil, gold and commodities and the fates of the dollar and real estate, on which I was prescient but, I am sad to report, insufficiently pessimistic. To argue that such skepticism is akin to racism in its promulgation of human injustice and suffering is beyond bizarre. It's bad enough that the meaning of racism has expanded beyond its rightful bounds to encompass anything and everything that offends anyone in an officially designated "aggrieved" ethnic group without trying to expand it to modes of thought that don't even have a tangential relationship to race.

Bowermaster misses one very important psychological insight when formulating his curse on pessimism: the notion that our happiness is related to the the level of beneficence in the outcomes we experience in relation to our expectations for beneficial outcomes. Lowered expectations for future success and happiness is actually a way to improve the odds for future happiness. So if anything Bowermaster's advice is counterproductive to human happiness. Does that make him the moral equivalent of a racist?

He also ignores the empirical studies which find that happiness is largely genetic, not circumstantial. So if you can't get happiness genes, take happiness pills, and don't mind the hecklers.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You would have a hard time persuading me that humans are, generally, risk averse, especially since I have been reading the 2 volume collection of Japanese war papers collected by Gordon Prange.

In fact, looking back over the 20th c., the one thing I see as truly novel was the concept of ideological warfare united to a nearly complete indifference to probable outcomes when it came to starting wars.

Start with Serbia prodding the Austrians, then the Austrians wanting to take on western Europe, then Germany v. the rest of the world, Japan v. US etc. etc.

True, from time to time, the hopeless underdogs came out on top (see Vietnam).

Still, risk aversion has not been much on display during my lifetime.

June 22, 2008 12:17 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

But in most of those examples, the aggressors believed there was no risk (certainly in the Japanese case). They don't speak to risk aversion, only the self deluding properties of ideology.

June 22, 2008 2:50 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not what they said at the time. I had just finished reading the diary of the XO of a destroyer in the Pearl Harbor attack force, and he said they all expected to be killed.

My understanding of the Japanese army warmongers was that they understood the risks -- that was why there was a big debate about "north or south?" but believed that Yamato spirit would allow the materially weaker to prevail.

That may be a special attitude toward risk -- which was my point -- but it isn't indifference to the threat.

I think.

Japanese thinking mystifies me.

Anyhow, a morning in district court also will suggest that there are many non-risk averse people out there.

I was reminiscing about one of my favorites earlier this week, in another context. He was a witness in a liquor violation hearing, about 110 pounds, late 30s, physically and mentally unprepossessing.

He had walked into a bar and without notice attacked 3 strangers, each about 10 years younger and 70 pounds heavier.

After listening to his tale, the chairman of the liquor board asked, "Why did you do this? You must have known you were going to get pounded."

The little guy's answer: "I like fight."

June 22, 2008 11:41 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

So did guys like this. I'm not sold on the notion that screw-it warfare was a 20th century innovation.

June 24, 2008 11:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home