"The fact that people are ready to pay for work is no proof of its usefulness. Nothing is too foolish or wicked to claim its price in this world; and many of the most approved occupations will not bear the examination of an unprejudiced mind."
Thursday, May 26, 2022
The Social Nature of Mind
In 1931 Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria traveled to central Asia to study the psychology of the people in that region. His goal was to test a bold hypothesis proposed by his colleague and mentor, Lev Vygotsky.
Though trained as a literary critic, who wrote a dissertation on Hamlet, Vygotsky became one of the giants of developmental psychology, the field that studies how behavior and thinking changes over a life span. It seems fair to say prior to Vygostky that most developmental theories emphasized the idea that the stages of cognitive development are encoded into the child at birth. It was also then common to use analogies from botany to describe child development. The child was seen as a plant unfolding through a prearranged sequence from seed to flower. It was no accident, as Vygotsky wryly noted, that children were sent to a place called kindergarten.
In contrast, Vygotsky embraced a radically different understanding of development. To him, the child’s major task is to become a competent member of society. This meant that the goals of development would be specific to particular cultures and historical contexts. For example, it is now considered important that children in the first years of school learn to read and write. Yet reading and writing are cultural inventions, less than 10,000 years old and the phenomenon of mass literacy arose only with the industrial revolution. In modern societies, the ability to read and write had become important developmental milestones. While some developmental sequences, such as the transition from crawling to walking, may indeed be hard wired into us, others are created by society and, then, transmitted by culture.
Vygotsky and Luria built on this observation. Just as people create and improve physical tools to manipulate the environment and pass this technology onto future generations, they also invent psychological tools. A psychological tool (sometimes called a cognitive tool) can be understood as a technique or strategy that alters human cognition or behavior. Physical tools alter the material environment, psychological tools are cultural inventions that change how we process information or how we behave. For example, the Hindu-Arabic number system is a case of just such a tool. Hindu-Arabic numbers allow us to perform calculations much more efficiently than previous systems of representing quantities. If you doubt this, try doing multiplication with Roman numerals. Reading and writing themselves are cognitive tools - they allow us to create an external form of memory and receive information from distant sources. Cognitive tools shift human consciousness in important ways. In a well-documented example, mass literacy empowered masses of people to directly read and interpret scriptures, with the importance consequence of loosening the authority of priestly mediation.
An inescapable consequence of this view is that different cultures and different socio-economic arrangements encourage different mentalities. This would be particularly true of different historical stages and different levels of social complexity. From Vygostsky’s view we should not expect ancient people to think about the world in the same way as modern people do.
Wednesday, May 25, 2022
" I never could believe that Providence had sent a few men into the world, ready booted and spurred to ride, and millions ready saddled and bridled to be ridden"
—Richard Rumbold, last words spoken on the scaffold, quoted by Ernest Crosby
Tuesday, May 24, 2022
"The civilized world has always been divided into slaves and masters, and we differ from the ancient world more in name than in fact. But there is beneath the surface one essential difference. We have accepted principles, religious and political, which are inconsistent with our social and economical order, and which, if they ever prevail, are bound to effect a far-reaching revolution."
Sunday, May 22, 2022
"It is not necessary to go to Monaco in order to have the extreme inequality of human destinies brought up vividly before us. We need only open our eyes. Spend a half day in walking through the slums and factories and fashionable streets of your city, and you will find the same issue joined at home—the same undeserved poverty and excessive toil, the same superabundant wealth, the same gambling, the same casinos (though we may call them speculation and exchanges), the same intolerable ennui, the same suicides. It is a strange way to live, is it not?"
Thursday, May 19, 2022
The altruistic giving of one’s own life poses a problem, why would anyone make this sacrifice? What possible benefit would be derived? It is easy to explain many acts of generosity as some form of selfishness or signaling. The philanthropist is rewarded with testimonial dinners and museum wings bearing the family name. The courageous hero is compensated with our admiration. Even the extreme self-sacrifice of a martyred saint might be explained as quid pro quo for favor in the afterlife.
As cynical as these explanations sound, they probably do explain some of the motivation for seemingly unselfish acts, but do they explain all such behavior? What about the kidney donor who gives up that organ without fanfare? Or those who, risking grave danger, helped Jews escape the Nazis?
Biologists have longed puzzled over how natural selection could have produced human altruism. And many have come to accept the idea that altruism is really covert selfishness, reflecting the genetic selfishness of kin favoritism and the benefits of reciprocity.
Along a similar line, many economists posit that humans are self-regarding actors, bent on maximizing their individual utility.
Both models do capture some aspects of human behavior and we would be mistaken to dismiss them out of hand. But do they explain all human behaviors?
The economists and biologists should not be faulted for their reductionism. Indeed, since it is more parsimonious, a reductionist explanation is to be preferred, but only if it can account for all the known data. And this is the rub, human hyper-sociality cannot be explained without reference to humans as cultural and historical beings. This means that some aspects of human behavior can only be understood as caused by our membership in a human community.
Henry George, in a book published after his death, described people as members of “a larger entity, which has a life and character of its own, and continues its existence while its components change, just as the life and characteristics of our bodily frame continue, though the atoms of which it is composed are constantly passing away from it and as constantly being replaced.” George viewed human cooperation as an outgrowth of our participation in that larger entity.
But viewing altruism as an emergent property of culture is precisely what many biologists and economists object to. Biologist Robert Trivers explicitly rejected this approach, writing “sociology and anthropology seemed to claim that the larger unit was the key to understanding the smaller one. Societies, groups, species - all evolved mechanisms by which individuals are merely unconscious tools in their larger designs. In the extreme position, the larger groups were imagined to have cohesiveness and interconnectedness associated with individual organisms.”
It is my contention that George was right and Trivers mistaken. Human altruism cannot be understood without reference to history, culture, systems of production and exchange, and psychology. Of course, our capacity for culture is the product of the same evolutionary forces that forged our bodies and physiology, but once created, human culture acts like the super-organism described by George. It is cumulative and follows its own evolutionary dynamics and path. It creates the possibility of human history beyond natural history.
That is the central argument of this paper - our altruism, while built on a biological substrate of reciprocal cooperation and empathy, is a product of human cultural and psychological evolution. It is has a history. It has a future. When we recognize this reality we have grounds for rejecting the pessimism that some have deduced from the fact of our evolutionary origins.
For example, science writer Matt Ridley tells us that while our selfish genes might allow for some limited forms of altruism, we must accept “that universal benevolence is impossibly Utopian, that the fungus of selfishness will be ready to strike at the heartwood of any harmonious whole. It will lead us to suspect self-interest to be the cause of endless mutinies.”
But Henry George had a response to Matt Ridleys of his day: “Lying beneath all such theories is the selfishness that would resist any inquiry into the titles to the wealth which greed has gathered, and the difficulty and indisposition on the part of the comfortable classes of realizing the existence of any other world than that seen through their own eyes.”
Monday, May 16, 2022
If you have ever taken an Econ 101 class at University, you were probably taught that minimum wage laws have the undesirable effect of increasing unemployment. The logic is straightforward, if you increase the price of anything the demand for it goes down. Your wage is just the price of labor and if the government sets it artificially high employers will find ways to hire fewer workers.
But remember something else your economics professor probably told you once, but then ignored for the rest of the semester. The magic workings of the market hold only under certain unrealistic assumptions, such as perfect competition.
In fact, our economy is highly monopolized and the buyers of labor power, i.e. employers, have greater bargaining power than workers. This means that, in the US, in most cases, wages are held artificially low.
Sunday, May 15, 2022
Saturday, May 14, 2022
"These data suggest that increasing low-fat plant foods and minimizing high-fat and animal foods is associated with decreased body weight and fat loss, and that a low-fat vegan diet can improve measures of diet quality and metabolic health."
Friday, May 13, 2022
From the journal Language Problems and Language Planning:
"Previous work has examined the potential of Esperanto as a pedagogical tool in classroom foreign language learning in England, where limited language input of sometimes as little as one hour per week is the norm. The work reviewed here focuses on child learners aged 6 to 12 and was carried out between 2006 and 2016. Two Esperanto-based language awareness programmes have provided primarily descriptive insights, suggesting that learning Esperanto may result in greater metalinguistic awareness and more positive attitudes to other languages and cultures. However, the language awareness programmes were implemented without matched comparison groups and therefore could not reveal whether the learning of Esperanto would lead to different results than the learning of other languages. Classroom-based research that included matched comparison groups has sought to address this issue. Specifically, three studies investigated the questions of whether learning Esperanto as opposed to learning other languages would help enhance children’s metalinguistic awareness and thus contribute in turn to more successful learning in a limited-input classroom context. On the one hand, results indicate that for novice child learners, Esperanto was easier to learn than French, and that learning Esperanto may have a levelling effect that compensates for individual differences between children. On the other hand, the findings also show that these apparent advantages of Esperanto did not translate into measurably greater benefits for the development of metalinguistic awareness, or greater subsequent success in learning another foreign language. Moreover, learning Esperanto could not compensate for low language learning aptitude. In view of these sobering results, a number of proposals are made on how to take forward the research agenda. These proposals include further research into the potential benefits of using form-focused instruction (based on any language) with children as well as the effects of learning Esperanto in novice adult learners."
Thursday, May 12, 2022
In 16th Century Holland, Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist, was arrested by the Dutch state for his religious dissent. An opportunity to escape arose and he fled across a frozen lake, chased by a guard. Willems abandoned his escape when he heard his pursuer fall through the thin ice and cry for help. Knowing the dangers, Willems returned and rescued the guard. He was taken back into custody, tortured, and later executed.
In 1897, when Henry George made his second run for mayor of New York City, he was told that it might cost him his life.
George, a lifelong smoker, had already suffered a stroke and his doctors warned him that the stress of a political campaign would likely be fatal. He responded “but I have got to die. How can I die better than serving humanity?”
George spared no effort in his campaign and pushed himself to his physical limits. He died after giving four public speeches in a 24 hour period, four days before the election.
Wednesday, May 11, 2022
"Plant-based diets (PBDs) are increasingly consumed by the Italian population and around the world. In particular, among PBDs, the vegan diet is a food pattern characterized by the exclusion of all animal-origin foods. What drives people to adopt this model are mainly ethical, health and environmental reasons. A vegan diet, if well-balanced and varied, can help in achieving and maintaining an optimal state of health. However, this nutritional approach, if not well-balanced, can cause deficiencies in proteins, ω-3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin D and calcium, zinc, iodine and, above all, vitamin B12. Oral food supplements especially fortified foods are recommended in these cases to restore the nutritional deficiencies. A vegan diet generally reduces the risk of developing chronic non-communicable degenerative diseases, such as metabolic syndrome (MetS) and, in addition, requires fewer natural resources for food production than an omnivorous diet. The aim of this review is to analyze the possible impact of the vegan diet on MetS onset and its treatment"
The full text is here.
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
"We cannot pretend that we do not know this. We are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see, it will not exist."
Monday, May 9, 2022
Saturday, May 7, 2022
Fascinating paper on the relationship between Esperanto and the world's religions. Here is the abstract:
"Some of the world’s major lingua francas are closely identified with particular religions – Latin and Catholicism, Arabic and Islam, Sanskrit and Hinduism, and so on. Esperanto offers an intriguing counterpoint to this pattern. An artificial auxiliary language promulgated in 1887, it has attracted attention from an extraordinary array of religions, typically those with universalistic aspirations, ranging from the Vatican to the Raelian UFO cult. Drawing on the fields of comparative religion and sociolinguistics, this article situates Esperanto in its European context. It discusses different religious interpretations of the language and isolates two leading religiolinguistic ideologies: the governmental and the ecclesiastical. A closer look at Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox liturgical texts reveals differing receptions of Esperanto in kindred ecclesiastical traditions."
I have written before about the Esperanto revival. Now the BBC has posted an article about our growing movement.
"All that made Esperanto one of the most overrepresented languages on the internet. To date, the Wikipedia page has some 240,000 articles in it, which puts it almost on par with the Turkish (a language with about 71 million speakers) or Korean (77 million speakers) versions. Both Google and Facebook have had an Esperanto version of their most popular products for many years, and some language learning services have appeared here and there. There is even a free hospitality service exclusive for Esperanto speakers called Pasporta Servo (passport service)."
Friday, May 6, 2022
Thursday, May 5, 2022
The Unselfish Mind Part 1
Introduction: A Prisoner’s Dilemma
When the United States entered the First World War, a young radical, named Ammon Hennacy, refused to register for the draft. Upon his arrest, he was given a choice: register or face the firing squad. In addition, he was told that all his socialist comrades, arrested for the same crime and given the same choice had agreed to register. The threat of execution was a bluff and the story of betrayal was a lie. Hennacy did not know this, yet he stood his ground.
He reflected “I felt that if they gave in someone had to stick, and I was that one.”
Hennacy was not shot, but he was convicted and sent to federal prison. While incarcerated he organized a hunger strike against the spoiled food fed to the inmates.
In his autobiography, Hennacy described what followed, "the next Monday I was called to the office and was told that I had been seen plotting to blow up the prison with dynamite, and was promptly sent to the dark hole. This was on June 21, 1918. I was left in my underwear, and lying in the small, three-cornered, very dark hole. I got a slice of cornbread and a cup of water each day. I kept a count of the days, as I heard the men marching to work, and at the end of ten days I was put in the light hole. White bread, which I got then, tasted like cake. This cell was on the ground floor, back of the deputy's office. It was about 18 feet long, 15 feet high, and 6 feet wide. A small dirty window near the top to the east faced a tall building, which kept sunlight from coming in, except on very bright days. A bunk was attached to the wall to the right; a plain chair and a small table, with a spoon, plate, and cup on it” (p. 19).
The only book that he was allowed to read was the Bible. When the guards noticed his interest, they replaced his copy with a smaller hard to read edition.
The deprivations and cruelties of prison failed to break Hennacy and he became a lifelong Christian pacifist. Over the course of his career he would participate in hunger strikes against capital punishment and nuclear armaments. One such fast lasted 45 days.
Wednesday, May 4, 2022
“A child no more inherits his father’s knowledge than he inherits his father’s glass eye or artificial leg; the child of the most ignorant parents may become a pioneer of science or a leader of thought” - Alfred Russel Wallace
Tuesday, May 3, 2022
“This inquiry shows that differences in civilization are not due to differences in individuals, but rather to differences in social organization; that progress, always kindled by association, always passes into retrogression as inequality is developed; and that even now, in modern civilization, the causes which have destroyed all previous civilizations are beginning to manifest themselves, and that mere political democracy is running its course toward anarchy and despotism. But it also identifies the law of social life with the great moral law of justice, and, proving previous conclusions, shows how retrogression may be prevented and a grander advance begun." - Henry George
Monday, May 2, 2022
Here is a list of the fifty largest landowners in the United States. The lowest ranked, the Hadley Family, owns land roughly the size of Hong Kong, while the number one land owner, John Malone, owns over two million acres.
The concentration of land ownership into a very small number of hands is an important factor in America’s growing income inequality. One under discussed aspect of our nation’s land monopoly is that is intimately tied up with animal agriculture.
A quick look at the list shows that many of these large land holdings are used for raising livestock. In this video we can see why these farms have calamitous effects.
Sunday, May 1, 2022
Here is a piece from the Washington Post about a program that pays people to stay off drugs. "Buswell, 21, was enrolled in a program...
If you have ever taken an Econ 101 class at University, you were probably taught that minimum wage laws have the undesirable effect of incre...