Saturday, 10 December 2011

What's the Minessence Group's Take on Memes?

Memes are ideas, tunes, inventions, retorts, ways of doing business, ways of asking for help, and ways of saying hello. (Palumbi 2001, p. 243) 
Over the past few decades there has been a shift in thought concerning the evolution of human culture. Ever since Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, coined the term “meme” as the selfish unit of societal evolution analogous to the gene’s role in the evolution of species, there’s been a groundswell of people focussing on the evolution culture via memes.
     Dawkins suggested that memes, composed of memory and imagination, were the basic replicating units through which human culture evolved. Yet, memes simply do not fit the model of classic Darwinian evolution.
     Ideas are not passed on from one generation to another in a linear fashion as are genes. Most often, each person adds their own slant to an idea or may simply not understand it properly and pass on some distortion of the original (Chinese whispers). Also, people’s values have a profound impact on the transference of ideas. Values filter what people give attention to—people don’t even notice, let alone pass on, ideas which would make no contribution to what they value. People may also deliberately make a conscious choice to pass on, or not to pass on, particular ideas—knowledge is power. 
     The main distinction is: Darwinian evolution is about the survival of the species which, by chance, have adapted to change in a way which avoids their extinction; whereas, the survival of ideas depends on complex values dynamics:
The impact of conscious selection at the stage of idea mutation and transmission blurs the distinction among the three elements of Darwin’s engine and suggests a very different way of looking at ideas than Dawkins’s notion of evolving memes. Picked over as carefully as meatballs at a cheap buffet, ideas are sorted by the finicky process of conscious selection. They are created, used, and discarded by active minds seeking their own advancement or their own comfort. What other element of our lives do we consciously improve for better function and pick carefully among to fill our cultural shopping carts? We can also consider ideas as tools.
     As tools, ideas may be practical or not. They may have general or specific uses. Others may shun them or adopt them with gusto. Sometimes they seem to have a life and independence of their own, like the wooden handle of an axe that becomes polished through use to fit the hands that wield it. But in the final analysis they remain tools, ways of manipulating the world or understanding it. They do not evolve like genes because like tools, they cannot really replicate themselves—they can be made only on demand by brains, and only by this agency can they spread through to other brains. This does not say they always benefit us—akin to the way many of us have tool boxes stuffed full of things not currently doing us any good—and it does not claim that they can never do damage—like an unchaperoned gun. But the function and rapid change of ideas does not require their independent evolution...(Palumbi 2001, p. 252)
Q. If memes are not the mechanism by which culture changes, what is? A. Changes in the culture's values-system, i.e. changes t its strange attractor.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

How do I Become an Evolved Person?

People often write about levels of consciousness which is curious, since no one yet even knows what consciousness is, let alone able to define levels of this elusive concept!
     Brian Hall (Figure 1), Clare Graves (Figure 2) and others go so far as to suggest that human development is correlated to levels of consciousness.
Figure 1. Stages & Phases of Human Development (Source: Brian hall)
     Clare Graves goes further than Hall's global consciousness level, seeming to imply there's no limit (Figure 2):
Figure 2. Levels of Human Consciousness Development
Supposedly, any person who has the global level consciousness of Hall's model, or is at level 10 or above of the Graves model, is an evolved person. There are two flaws in these and similar models of human development:
  1. Evolution cannot be tied to growth, development, progress or any other like concept. Identifying someone is an evolved person actually says nothing about who they are as a person, in fact the statement is rather meaningless.
  2. Levels of consciousness cannot be tied to values development.
Let's look at these flaws in more detail...

Evolution Cannot be Tied to Growth/Progress
Figure 3 is a typical technology timeline advertisement which explicitly assumes a link between evolution and progress:
Figure 3. Linking Evolution & Progress
However, Darwin himself pointed out that evolution is only about species adapting to change--those which adapt appropriately survive. It's about the continued existence of the fittest to survive. Those which survive are not better or more intelligent that those which didn't survive. They are simply those which survived because, by chance. they adapted to changed conditions in a way which prevented them from becoming extinct. The current evolution of the human species looks more like that depicted in the two cartoons of Figure 3:
Figure 3. Evolution of Man (Note: Not sexist, just  couldn't find equivalent cartoons with women in too)
If progress really was tied to evolution one would perhaps have expected a result more like this:
Figure 4. An Evolutionary Fantasy (sorry still sexist)
The cartoons of Figures 2 & 3 represent canonical icons--i.e. iconic depictions of an unconscious belief-set (in this case, a false belief-set) embedded in the psyche of Western culture. Interestingly, as highlighted by the side notes in the captions, these canonical icons are also linking males to evolution and progress. Figure 5 is the only one found which did include a female. How do you react to this image? Is it a cynical dig at the male concept of evolution and progress? Or, is it just using sexual imagery to promote something?
Figure 5. What's the Canonical Message?
In summary, there's no link between evolution and progress. In fact, letting this false belief guide our collective behaviour is a form of "cop-out": we don't have to think, put the brain in neutral and let random selection create a better world for us--"Sorry. It ain't gonna happen!"

Levels of Consciousness Cannot be tied to Values Development
What is consciousness? For starters, consciousness is not like an on-off switch where we are either conscious or unconscious. It's more like a dimmer switch, where it can go through a continuum from were you are totally disconnected from the world (asleep or in a coma) to the other end where you are totally pre-occupied with some worldly issue be it operating one someone's brain, repairing a car motor, writing a song, solving the problems of the world with a colleague, landscaping the garden...(Greenfield, 2000)
      Latest neuroscience (Geddes, 2011) has identified that consciousness is correlated with the synchronization process of brain activities. The more our brain is involved in connecting all the dots, the more conscious we are. When we are most conscious, paradoxically, we disconnect from the world around us (our senses are effectively "turned off") and we lose track of time--we are in a state Czikszentmihalyi (1992) describes as flow...


Figure 6 is a simplified version of the diagram Czikszentmihalyi uses in his video.
Figure 6. Commensurate Increases in Challenge & Skills Creates Flow Experiences  
Whereas no scientific research has been uncovered which links consciousness with values development, raised consciousness (flow experience) is linked to skills development. It follows that there is a link of sorts with values, i.e. we will only ever be self-motivated to take on challenge and skills associated with activities which match our values. Click here for a case study where this approach is applied to living the value health/well-being.

So the term evolved person is rather meaningless because there's no link between evolution and progress or development. So lets re-frame the question to,  "How do I use my values to guide my personal development." Answer:
  1. Know and live your own values ("If you are not living your values, whose values are you living?)
  2. Continually seek to increase your skills in living your values using the model given in Figure 6
  3. Because we are part of nature, we cannot live our values any way we want, so live your values in consideration of other life on this planet.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

What's the Difference Between Values, Ethics & Principles?

The short answer: "Values motivate, ethics and morals necessarily constrain (because we live in a society, we cannot live our values any way we want)."
     Values describe what is important in a person's life, while ethics and morals prescribe what is or is not considered appropriate behaviour in living one's life. Principles inform our choice of desirable behavioural constraints (morals, ethics, rules, laws, etc.).
     "Generally speaking, value refers to the relative worth of a quality or object. Value is what makes something desirable or undesirable" (Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 425). Through applying our personal values (usually unconsciously) as benchmarks, we continually make subjective judgments about a whole manner of things:
...we are more likely to make choices that support our value systems than choices that will not. Let us say that financial security is a strong value for an individual. When faced with a choice of jobs, chances are the individual will carefully examine each organisation for potential financial and job security. The job applicant who values financial security may well take a lower salary offer with a well established company over a higher-paying offer from a new, high risk venture. Another job seeker with different values, possibly adventure and excitement, might choose the newer company simply for the potential risk and uncertain future.
Values, therefore, become part of complex attitude sets that influence our behaviour and the behaviour of all those with whom we interact. What we value guides not only our personal choices but also our perceptions of the worth of others. We are more likely, for example, to evaluate highly someone who holds the same hard-work value we do than someone who finds work distasteful, with personal gratification a more important value. We may also call the person lazy and worthless, a negative value label.
What then of ethics? Ethics are the standards by which behaviours are evaluated for their morality - their rightness or wrongness. Imagine a person who has a strong value of achievement and success. Knowing only that this value is important to them gives us a general expectation of their behaviour, i.e. we would expect them to be goal oriented, gaining the skills necessary to get what they want, etc. However, we cannot know whether they will lie or cheat to get what they want or "do an honest day's work each day". The latter dimension is a matter of ethics and morality. Take another example, a person has a high priority value or research/knowledge/insight. They have have a career in medical research. In fact, knowing their value priority we would expect them to have a career in some form of research, however, we do not know from their value priority how they are likely to undergo their research. Will the person conduct experiments on animals, or would they abhor such approaches? Again, the latter is a matter of ethical stance and morality. Johannesen (cited Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 437) gives further examples which help distinguish between values and ethics:
Concepts such as material success, individualism, efficiency, thrift, freedom, courage, hard work, prudence, competition, patriotism, compromise, and punctuality all are value standards that have varying degrees of potency in contemporary American culture. But we probably would not view them primarily as ethical standards of right and wrong. Ethical judgments focus more precisely on degrees of rightness and wrongness in human behaviour. In condemning someone for being inefficient, conformist, extravagant, lazy, or late, we probably would not also claim they are unethical. However, standards such as honesty, truthfulness, fairness, and humaneness usually are used in making ethical judgments of rightness and wrongness in human behaviour.
To summarise then, values are our measures of importance, whereas ethics represent our judgments about right and wrong. The close relationship between importance and right and wrong is a powerful influence on our behaviour and how we evaluate the behaviour of others.
Q. How does one go about choosing what ethics, morals, rules, laws, etc. are 'right'?
A. By basing them on appropriate principles.
The Principle Centric Approach to Behavioural Choices
Principle is defined in Nuttall's Concise Standard Dictionary of the English Language as, "Principle. n the source or origin of anything; a general truth or law comprehending many subordinate ones; tenet or doctrine; a settled law or rule of action; v.t. to impress with any tenet; to establish firmly in the mind." 
     In this Millennium, perhaps more than ever before, We need to reformulate a set of principles to guide us. There are two main benefits of taking a principle centric approach to guide all human action: (1) knowing a set of principles concerning 'the nature of things' enables us to make informed choices and judgments as we would know, with a high degree of certainty, the likely outcomes of our actions, (2) knowing even a few principles helps us avoid information overload. On the latter point, Birch (1999, p. 44) says:
One way in which drowning in information is overcome is by the discovery of principles and theories that tie up a lot of information previously untied. Prior to Charles Darwin biology was a mass of unrelated facts about nature. Darwin tied them together in a mere three principles of evolution: random genetic variation, struggle for existence and natural selection. So we do not need to teach every detail that was taught to nineteenth century students. A mere example is necessary to illustrate the universal principles.
     Before you raise your voice to protest, "What do scientific principles have to do with informing what constitutes ethical and moral human behaviour?" Stop for a moment and ponder the what has been institutionalised into Western society, all in the name of extolling the virtue of progress through unencumbered evolution--guided by the principles made evident by Charles Darwin: we push for free trade with level playing fields, argue that cloning interferes with natural selection, push for de-regulation so that competition prevails and only the fit organisations should survive, etc., etc.
     But what if we've got Darwin wrong? What if the principles instead were: survival of those who cooperate for the greater good, selection guided by a moral sense, etc. We would have a completely different society from that which we have today. Internalising the principles we believe explain the nature-of-things is perhaps the single most powerful factor shaping society. It is vital that we maintain a continual dialogue around principles to ensure those we internalise and institutionalise are up-to-date and are our current best shot at the truth. We must work hard to expose those who willingly spread misinformation for their own personal gain--our future depends on it.

 We are entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts. 

Some examples of principles are:
  • People become more trusting the more they perceive they are being trusted. 
  • The wealth of countries is directly related to the level of trust within the country. 
  • The greater the trust level, the greater the wealth. 
  • People reject inequality, even if it means walking away empty-handed. 
  • Our brain is dichotomous which leads to the fact that many of people's "weaknesses" are a natural consequence of their strengths--rather than try and "fix" these weaknesses, celebrate them.