July 3rd, 2003

This morning we feature part fifteen of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire, 12) The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors, 13) The Birth of Boundary Breakers, 14) The Guesswork of Collective Mind. Reposted from Telepolis.

The Pluralism Hypothesis—Athens

Howard Bloom

Meanwhile, above the Peloponnesus in Athens, another hypothesis was making its way through evolution’s r&d labs – one which would increase not merely the speed with which information flowed, but the way in which it would be processed. Sparta was a freezer killing off diversity. Athens was diversity’s warm and cozy hatchery. As a result, Athens and Sparta tested a fistful of opposing policies: among them, authoritarianism versus libertarianism, internationalism versus isolationism, and totalitarianism versus democracy. The winner would not be the contestant anyone was likely to foresee.

A removal from one set of people to another… will often include a total change of conversation, opinion, and idea.
Jane Austen

The peopling of Athens’ hills came relatively late. In 3,000 b.c., roughly 5,000 years after the inhabitants of Jericho had laid down their walls and 3,000 after Catal Huyuk had gone into full swing, unknown peoples settled on the northwest slope of a hill we know as the Acropolis and left behind their high-grade burnished pottery. How long they’d been there before they made their fancy kitchenware, archaeologists have as yet been unable to ascertain.

The spot was blessed by several advantages. Its Acropolis had a direct water supply, unlike the hilltops on which other settlers relied for their defense. The surrounding region was shielded by four mountain ranges. And its land mass jutted into the sea, allowing it to be whipped by winds of interchange. Catal Huyuk had long since traded with the isle of Crete, and this is the place from which the early Athenians derived their heaviest influence. While the Thebans looked back to a land-wandering Oedipus and the Spartans to a power-packed Hercules, the legendary planter of Athenian culture was reputed to have been Theseus, a transport-obsessed inventor who had solved the mystery of the Cretan maze, defeated Knossos’ Minotaur, then devised a flying machine. By 1200 b.c. the Acropolis was a heavily-buttressed hill fort whose walls, unlike those of other Greek cities, would never be destroyed by Dorian invaders.1 While Sparta’s helots would be sliced from their heritage, Athens’ cultural thread would not be snapped.

Legend has that in roughly 1250 b.c., Theseus united the twelve pivotal towns2 of Attica’s 140 villages into one city, whose merger was commemorated with a wall of great circumference. Archaeologists place the date of centralization at closer to 700 b.c.3 The newly consolidated polis could have lived, like Sparta, off the grain produced by its surrounding territories. But the soil was fit for barley, and Athenians craved wheat – available in quantity from Greece’s Southern Russian colonies. To earn the dough that fed their appetite, many of Athens’ aristocrats ceased living on their land, moved into town, and made new fortunes as industrialists. Meanwhile the Spartans, who at the time eclipsed Athenians in both fame and power, shunned such inglorious labors. A taste for foreign bread would eventually make Athens the center of the web of commercial outposts from which Miletus had also sucked its wealth.

In Sparta, there was very little pick and choose. Your dinner, your dining place, the nature of the table you sat at, the hall in which you noshed, the companions at your table, and the subjects you discussed were ordained by custom and authority. Athens was the opposite. A man – Athenian women were treated as a form of domesticated animal best tucked away at home – could select from a catalog of social clubs which reflected his personal obsessions – material, genealogical, intellectual or emotional. If you wanted to show off the power of an ancient lineage, you could join one of the gennetai who monopolized the priesthoods. If you were seeking comradeship, mutual aid, and a major hoo-hah on the holidays, you could sign up for a lower-class religious fellowship, a secular burial society, a benefit association, a trade group, or a hobby club, then join together with your adopted “brethren” in feasts, chat fests, and business gatherings. If getting bombed, trashing the town, and occasionally mucking about in politics with aristocratic chums caught your fancy, you could join a high-class drinking club (a symposion),4 or, if you wanted to get in shape after evenings of debauch, you could enroll in the sports club at a gymnasium. For the mystically minded, there were sects galore. For intellectuals, there were schools gathered around great thinkers. No matter what your disposition, there was a famous mentor within whose circle you could hone it royally and know that despite the oddness of your ensuing views, you were among friends whose malformed souls were comfortably in agreement your own. Even pirates had their official societies, complete with by-laws sanctioned and regulated by government authorities.5

This gave the diversity generator the opportunity to upgrade a component critical to the development of global mind, one which had appeared back in Catal Huyuk in more primitive form: the interest group, the subculture, the self-innovating equivalent to a dedicated microprocessor. Through subcultures the concepts coming in from across the seas would show their power to make of cities something no tribal society ever could have been. Each new conviction flowing from abroad entered the marketplace of ideas, vied for buyers, and if it became a hit, gathered ’round it a fan club, its own mini-society. Behind this process lay a pair of forces rooted in the strangeness of emotion and biology.

The Psychobiology of Subcultures

our brains differ as much as our bodies. Indeed, they may differ more. One part of the brain, the anterior commissure…varies seven-fold in area between one person and the next. Another part, the massa intermedia…, is not found at all in one in four people. The primary visual cortex can vary three-fold in area. Something called our amygdala (it is responsible for our fears and loves) can vary two-fold in volume – as can something called our hippocampus (involved in memory). Most surprisingly, our cerebral cortex varies in non-learning impaired people nearly two-fold in volume.
John Skoyles6

Thanks to Plato, we have what purport to be records of the conversations of a cuisinart of concepts whose roughly 50-year-long intellectual life bracketed the Periclean Golden Age (443-429 b.c.). The all-purpose conceptual chopper and blender was that son of a socially high-placed family, Socrates. Experts and neophytes agree that it’s impossible to tell how many of the words Plato ascribes to this self-appointed gadfly were authentic, and how many were simply Plato’s way of getting his own notions into the public eye. But one thing is generally accepted as accurate – the names of the folks from whom Socrates extracted opinions before shredding them with the quiz-mastering which now bears his name (Socratic dialog). The cast of characters in the Dialogs, says learned reasoning, was too well known in Athens for Plato to have fudged.

Just who were these fonts whose wisdom Socrates whipped and whirled? Frequently famous thinkers from cities each of which specialized in a different manner of plucking goods from its surroundings and injecting them into the circulatory system of Mediterranean and Black Sea commerce. Socrates was a student of Anaxagoras, who came from the Ionian city of Clazomenae on the coast of today’s Turkey. He was also a disciple of Archelaus, another Ionian import. The Socratic dialogs Plato “chronicled” included those with Protagoras from the Balkan city of Abdera, Hippias from Peloponnesian Elis, Parmenides from Italy’s Elea, and Gorgias from Sicily’s Leontini. Each visiting intellect had been shaped by contact with a unique group of surrounding tribes, and by the exigencies imposed on city structure, domestic habit, and vested interest by distinctive forms of enterprise. One result: each arrival presented a philosophy which appealed to a very different configuration of the human mind.

One of the five complex adaptive system elements transforming a bacterium, lizard, baboon, or human being into a module in the collective calculator switches your physiology on or off depending on your contribution to the communal circuitry. This is the utility sorter, which measures you by two yardsticks: 1) your personal sense of mastery;7 and 2) the hints you pick up from others telling you whether they want you eagerly or wouldn’t care if you disappeared like a blackhead from the face of humanity.8 A person coping grandly with the trials tossed her way stabilizes a populace in its trip through choppy seas. One wanted by her peers feeds the group’s emotional machinery. Nestled deep within your neuroendocrine complex,9 utility sorters operate on a sliding scale. They move you from fear to daring, from misery to happiness, from bitchiness to charm, from timid silence to expansive speech, from depression to elation, from pain to pleasure, from confusion to insight, and from listlessness to lust. Some of us are born with our utility sorters stuck at the bottom of the range – depression, shyness, and heightened susceptibility to pain. Others arrive from the womb with an abnormal setting on the other end – restless energy, few inhibitions, little sense of angst or guilt. But most of us are in the middle, with utility sorters prepared to glide one way or the other, adjusting us according to our fit with the network’s needs. Those who enter the world with their utility sorters jammed at an extreme give clues to how the sorters tune us – and the effect they have on society.

According to noted Harvard University researcher Jerome Kagan, Jung originated the concept of introverted and extroverted personalities. Jung also believed, said Kagan, that each had a slightly different brain structure. Kagan feels that in his own way, he has proven Jung right. He’s found that ten to fifteen percent of infants are born with a tendency to be restrained and withdrawn while another ten to fifteen are born with a tendency to become dauntless and spontaneous. Kagan has done numerous experiments and accumulated large amounts of data during the last few decades demonstrating his point.10

He refers to facts like these:

  • In studies of Japanese and American newborns, some took the removal of the nipple from their mouths calmly, while others went into emotional fits.11 The babies as yet had had no opportunity to learn these reactions from their parents. The tendencies were those they’d brought with them from the isolation of the uterus. At fourteen months, the babies who’d been easily upset at birth were still more likely to break out crying when a stranger stepped into the room.12 On another test, babies who squalled hysterically at birth if switched suddenly from water to a sugar solution had a harder time tolerating separation from their mothers at the age of one or two than babies who had taken the change in beverage casually.13 In addition, a study of 113 children showed that those who had a hard time handling the unexpected when they were one year old were still shy and withdrawn by the time they reached six.
  • This tendency toward variation in personality was not limited to human beings. According to Kagan, it appeared in dogs, mice, rats, wolves, cats, cows, monkeys, and paradise fish. Some of these animals were fascinated by novelty. Others were terrified by anything the least bit out of place.14
  • Fifteen percent of cats steered clear of strangers and even avoided attacking rats. This was remarkably close to the percentage of humans frozen by their fears.15

Kagan traces the difference to genes, which can help set off a lifelong domino effect in the brain. The production of a key manufacturing enzyme for the stimulant norepinephrine, says Kagan, is controlled by a single gene locus, making norepinephrine level highly heritable.16 Norepinephrine – which is also a potent stress hormone – shows up very early in the development of the embryo,17 making the hippocampus oversensitive to the unfamiliar, and hyperactivating the amygdala, the blast-horn of the warning signal we call fear.

But genes are not the only reasons some of us pop out of the placenta with our utility sorters jammed. An Italian scientist, Alessandra Piontelli,18 has studied identical twins from their first weeks as embryos to their childhoods. She’s noticed that the two compete within their mother’s uterus. One will become dominant and the other subordinate. The dominant will hog up the most comfortable space, leaving only a cramped corner to its brother or sister. As one-year-olds, the pair will show the same characteristics. One will be active, an extrovert, the other passive, an introvert.19 The outgoing, domineering twin will do most of the communicating, even if its only language consists of smiles, winces, googles, wriggles, crawls, and runs. The other one-year-old will stay silent and often toddle anxiously away, attempting to hide as if it were still seeking protection from its more boisterous and expansive clone. Both twins have the same genes, but pre-birth experience makes a walloping difference.

Now here’s the rub. Many of us are conceived as twins. Roughly 150 million20 alive today are victors in a competition with a brother or sister who never made it past the early embryonic stage. The rest of us, as fetuses, rapaciously plunder our mothers’ reserves. Despite all she naturally shares with us, we use biological weapons like placental lactogen to raid the pantry of her glucose stores and destroy the nerves and muscles with which she allocates our blood flow.21 So our social experience – be it good or bad – begins in utero22 and may shape the very way we form. In addition we marinate in chemicals our mother secretes to handle her own crises and her joys.23 Her stress hormones can make us emotionally-troubled infants. Her hormones of happiness can have the opposite effect.24 But one way or the other, we each emerge scrambled in our own peculiar way.25

Later in life the products of a pre-birth norepinephrine cascade are timid children, who, in carefully controlled studies, pick up on slight changes in tones or brightness of light that other children miss. In other words, these children literally see and hear their world in ways others would not recognize. According to Kagan, the constitutionally frightened are endowed with a limbic system hair-triggered to explode with tremors of potential catastrophe. As a consequence shy children attempt to escape detonation by hiding from everyday events which threaten to shatter them. Uninhibited children, on the opposite end of the scale, have under-aroused limbic systems and demand a deluge of input to dodge intolerable boredom. Their craving for excitement can sometimes wear their parents to a frazzle.

Nurture and nature both play a role in later tendencies to what another longtime specialist on the topic, Kazimierz Dabrowski, called under and overexcitability.26 Culture affects the way mothers raise their children, and that, in turn, helps shift the balance between boldness and vulnerability. Seventy-five percent of American one-year olds studied become upset when their mothers leave the room and abandon them with a stranger, but only 33% of West German babies become disturbed. Thanks to their country’s child-rearing style, West German infants seem more capable of handling things on their own.27

Class – a factor that existed twenty five million years ago – also has an impact. Lower class mothers say they cherish physical closeness as much as mothers in the middle class. However testing indicates they tend to ignore their baby’s needs and leave their infants untouched and unheld a high proportion of the time. This produces more timid, fearful children than those nurtured by more physically responsive middle class mothers.28 When a mother comes back into a room after leaving a baby with a stranger, some babies calm down quickly, some don’t, and others are relatively indifferent. The easily comforted tend to be the ones blessed with an engrossed mom who listens to her baby’s sounds, watches its face and eyes, and twines her coos and burbles with her infant’s in emotional duet. The inconsolable babies’ mothers do not croon to their infants’ rhythms, but swamp them in a wash of unrelenting words. Indifferent babies may actually push their mother away when she comes back. These are children whose cries have usually been ignored – a disproportionately lower class strategy.29

Utility Sorters and Collective Intelligence

Remember, only roughly twenty to 30 percent of us start out in life with settings slammed to one end or the other. Seventy to 80% – the vast majority – slip back and forth on the scale. Hence the claim that Kagan’s introversion and extroversion are products of utility sorters – the endogenous devices shifting a creature from inhibition to boldness depending on the cues hinting at his value to society. Babies receive these signals from the interest their mothers and others show in what they try “to say.” You can see their utility sorters wilt them when you frown and stiffen to their beckoning or thrill them when you grin at their invitation and bend down to clown around.

The complex adaptive systems game plan for collective intelligence gives utility sorters a vital role to play. Early in this book, two networked learning machines trotted to the turf – the neural net and the immune system. In each, elements helping unravel the problems at hand went into hyper-action, demanding and receiving energy (an electrical boost for a node in the neural net and bonus cell-food for a lymphocyte with a bead on an incoming enemy). In addition, they were zestful attention mongers. Successful dilemma-solvers in the neural net attracted an eager concentration of connections from other terminals. And immune cells with a lock on the invader’s weak points shot out signals to follow the same pattern – messages which were quickly obeyed. Cells and connections without a clue, on the other hand, went into self-imposed retirement. They shunned fuel, retreated from the team, and in essence shut themselves away. Utility sorters shifted the most valuable players into pep and bumblers toward a recoil into anonymity. In animals like humans, utility sorters accomplish the same purpose. They use bits of brain tissue and whorls of glandular chemistry to give the most valuable players zest and yank the bumblers toward obscurity.

In a Gabonese troop of brightly striped and decorated mandrill monkeys, one male, Fangs, was undisputed leader of a troop of 80. His utility sorters were set on high. He was proud, fearless, self-composed, and seemingly unassailable. His testosterone levels were three times greater than those of the normal male. His internal calibrations and the social position which accompanied them gave him a monopoly over the desirable females in his tribe. Meanwhile his second-in-command, Punk, looked nearly as regal, but he wasn’t. For one thing his testosterone level was far lower. For another, he had the door slammed on his sexuality. When a female came into heat, he was obliged to steer clear and leave the pleasures of procreation to the mighty Fangs. Eventually Punk’s utility sorters slid from the high point triggered by his considerable social status to a low switched on by the seeming hopelessness of ever reaching the top. First Punk became listless and withdrawn. Then he literally disappeared for six months. He returned when there was a sudden chance to finally prove his worth. Fangs had been snatched from the troop, and there was a leadership gap. The numerous young males who’d hoped for this day were quick to move out of utility-sorter underdrive. But they were charging up from way behind. Their testes had been small, their male hormones in a long-term slump, the status markings on their faces and rumps sadly drab, and their bodies scrawny from years of being chased away. Having been a recognized aristocrat, Punk’s utility sorters had kept him in relative readiness. Despite his exile, he was still sturdy, colorful, and quick to get hormonally pumped. He fought his way to the top, and patiently won the females over to his side. Then, with daily obeisance paid to his indispensability, his testosterone finally soared as high as Fangs’ had been.30

The moral to the story is that the utility sorters Kagan studied had evolved to rachet up and down according to collective need. However Kagan focussed on biological extremes in which these shifters were jammed into one gear. In the process, he gave invaluable clues to the utility sorters’ idiosyncrasies. Kagan has drawn conclusions with wide-ranging consequences from his work. He feels he has demonstrated that what a parent does is not the ultimate in child-raising.31 Because human infants react differently to the same potentially stressful events,32 several children growing up in the same household will each perceive a vastly different “reality.” What’s more, a baby wailing in unstoppable alarm trips a different frame of mind in parents than a cuddly infant whose tears can turn to smiles almost instantly.33 Other researchers agree, pointing out that an infant partially shapes its parents’ behavior, carving its own envelope of family.

Kagan also feels that over and under-sensitivities play a powerful role in producing cultural bounty. He studied the biographies of T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Alfred North Whitehead, Alan Turing, and Nobel Prize-winning neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini. His conclusion: an inhibited temperament can nudge a child toward a life of creative scholarship.34 Kagan also cites a study of pioneering architects and mathematicians which revealed that they’d been rejected by their peers when they were teenagers (indicating that they’d probably been hyper-sensitively shy). Their later success was motivated, among other things, by a desire to gain power over those who had once mocked them.35

It seems safe to say that once these figures had taken their revenge and proven their merit to society, the cues of fame reversed the gears of their utility sorters, wiping much of their diffidence away. For a 1990s version of this neuroendocrine about-face, see the career of the once-timid Bill Gates, who, like the withdrawn John D. Rockefeller36 a century before him, became a pitiless competition crusher, a fearsome match in almost any game.

Even more important for the evolution of communal mind is Kagan’s belief that infant personality type influences the subculture with which a child identifies later in life. What’s more, Kagan’s studies of creativity imply that inhibited babies may grow to be the prophets around whom subcultures congregate.

Athens did not kill off its introverted, physically weak, and over-sensitive newborns who would have made poor warriors. Nor did it regiment them mercilessly as youths and eradicate their sense of individuality. Over to Xenophon again. Athenians and the inhabitants of the Greek cities which fed their thinkers into the Athenian mix came from parents “who claim to give their sons the finest education…put them under the care of servants as tutors and at once despatch [sic] them to schools to learn reading and writing and music and the art of wrestling. Besides they make their children’s feet soft with shoes and their bodies delicate with changes of clothing. As for food, they certainly let them eat as much as their stomach can hold.”37

Then there is the report from Xenophon that, “The time when boys develop into youths is the very moment when…[Athenians and the inhabitants of their sister cities] remove them from tutors, remove them from schools and have nobody in charge of them any longer, but leave them independent.”38 Independent to make choices. Independent to find others with aberrations like their own. Independent to seek or build a subculture in which their otherwise oddly shaped temperaments might find a welcome home.

Sparta after Lycurgus was straitjacketed in a single cultural mode. It picked and chose at birth who would live and die, then continued to winnow its ruling class as they grew up, using rough competition to pound its youths into one mold of acceptability. There was no room for musing poets like the pre-Lycurgan Alcman – reputed to have been the inventor of love poetry. When Sparta needed a rhymer in roughly 650 b.c. to write the fiercely war-soaked anthems which would stir it to military victory in the second Messenian War, it was forced to import a rhapsodizer – Tyrtaeus – from Athens. Athens, on the other hand, allowed the development of subcultures galore, each providing a haven for a different kind of personality, each struggling to make its mixture of emotion and ideas a world-defining force in the city-state’s collective comprehension of reality.

Just as utility sorters turn the individual into a component of his society’s intelligence, the subcultures around which abnormal individuals gather help a society switch its settings and either take on leadership or blend in with the multitude. In other words, subcultures help adjust the utility sorters of entire states, making them nodes in yet a larger “thinking” mesh…the web which would eventually become a networked brain for all humanity. In Athens, subcultures and the nourishment of under and oversensitivity would literally change the course of history.

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Verlag Heinz Heise

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