What Makes Us Moral

If the entire human species were a single individual, that person would long ago have been declared mad. The insanity would not lie in the anger and darkness of the human mind, though it can be a black and raging place indeed. And it certainly wouldn’t lie in the transcendent goodness of that mind one so sublime, we fold it into a larger “soul.” The madness would lie instead in the fact that both of those qualities, the savage and the splendid, can exist in one creature, one person, often in one instant.

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame and our paradox.

The deeper that science drills into the substrata of behavior, the harder it becomes to preserve the vanity that we are unique among Earth’s creatures. We’re the only species with language, we told ourselves until gorillas and chimps mastered sign language. We’re the only one that uses tools then but that’s if you don’t count otters smashing mollusks with rocks or apes stripping leaves from twigs and using them to fish for termites.

What does, or ought to, separate us then is our highly developed sense of morality, a primal understanding of good and bad, of right and wrong, of what it means to suffer not only our own pain something anything with a rudimentary nervous system can do but also the pain of others. That quality is the distilled essence of what it means to be human. Why it’s an essence that so often spoils, no one can say.

Morality may be a hard concept to grasp, but we acquire it fast. A preschooler will learn that it’s not all right to eat in the classroom, because the teacher says it’s not. If the rule is lifted and eating is approved, the child will happily comply. But if the same teacher says it’s also O.K. to push another student off a chair, the child hesitates. “He’ll respond, ‘No, the teacher shouldn’t say that,'” says psychologist Michael Schulman, co-author of Bringing Up a Moral Child. In both cases, somebody taught the child a rule, but the rule against pushing has a stickiness about it, one that resists coming unstuck even if someone in authority countenances it. That’s the difference between a matter of morality and one of mere social convention, and Schulman and others believe kids feel it innately.

Of course, the fact is, that child will sometimes hit and won’t feel particularly bad about it either unless he’s caught. The same is true for people who steal or despots who slaughter. “Moral judgment is pretty consistent from person to person,” says Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Moral Minds. “Moral behavior, however, is scattered all over the chart.” The rules we know, even the ones we intuitively feel, are by no means the rules we always follow.

Where do those intuitions come from? And why are we so inconsistent about following where they lead us? Scientists can’t yet answer those questions, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking. Brain scans are providing clues. Animal studies are providing more. Investigations of tribal behavior are providing still more. None of this research may make us behave better, not right away at least. But all of it can help us understand ourselves a small step up from savagery perhaps, but an important one.

The Moral Ape

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.

The deepest foundation on which morality is built is the phenomenon of empathy, the understanding that what hurts me would feel the same way to you. And human ego notwithstanding, it’s a quality other species share.It’s not surprising that animals far less complex than we are would display a trait that’s as generous of spirit as empathy, particularly if you decide there’s no spirit involved in it at all. Behaviorists often reduce what we call empathy to a mercantile business known as reciprocal altruism. A favor done today food offered, shelter given brings a return favor tomorrow. If a colony of animals practices that give-and-take well, the group thrives.

But even in animals, there’s something richer going on. One of the first and most poignant observations of empathy in nonhumans was made by Russian primatologist Nadia Kohts, who studied nonhuman cognition in the first half of the 20th century and raised a young chimpanzee in her home. When the chimp would make his way to the roof of the house, ordinary strategies for bringing him down calling, scolding, offers of food would rarely work. But if Kohts sat down and pretended to cry, the chimp would go to her immediately. “He runs around me as if looking for the offender,” she wrote. “He tenderly takes my chin in his palm … as if trying to understand what is happening.”

You hardly have to go back to the early part of the past century to find such accounts. Even cynics went soft at the story of Binta Jua, the gorilla who in 1996 rescued a 3-year-old boy who had tumbled into her zoo enclosure, rocking him gently in her arms and carrying him to a door where trainers could enter and collect him. “The capacity of empathy is multilayered,” says primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University, author of Our Inner Ape. “We share a core with lots of animals.”

While it’s impossible to directly measure empathy in animals, in humans it’s another matter. Hauser cites a study in which spouses or unmarried couples underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they were subjected to mild pain. They were warned before each time the painful stimulus was administered, and their brains lit up in a characteristic way signaling mild dread. They were then told that they were not going to feel the discomfort but that their partner was. Even when they couldn’t see their partner, the brains of the subjects lit up precisely as if they were about to experience the pain themselves. “This is very much an ‘I feel your pain’ experience,” says Hauser.

The brain works harder when the threat gets more complicated. A favorite scenario that morality researchers study is the trolley dilemma. You’re standing near a track as an out-of-control train hurtles toward five unsuspecting people. There’s a switch nearby that would let you divert the train onto a siding. Would you do it? Of course. You save five lives at no cost. Suppose a single unsuspecting man was on the siding? Now the mortality score is 5 to 1. Could you kill him to save the others? What if the innocent man was on a bridge over the trolley and you had to push him onto the track to stop the train?

Pose these dilemmas to people while they’re in an fMRI, and the brain scans get messy. Using a switch to divert the train toward one person instead of five increases activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex the place where cool, utilitarian choices are made. Complicate things with the idea of pushing the innocent victim, and the medial frontal cortex an area associated with emotion lights up. As these two regions do battle, we may make irrational decisions. In a recent survey, 85% of subjects who were asked about the trolley scenarios said they would not push the innocent man onto the tracks even though they knew they had just sent five people to their hypothetical death. “What’s going on in our heads?” asks Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. “Why do we say it’s O.K. to trade one life for five in one case and not others?”

How We Stay Good

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it.

Merely being equipped with moral programming does not mean we practice moral behavior. Something still has to boot up that software and configure it properly, and that something is the community. Hauser believes that all of us carry what he calls a sense of moral grammar the ethical equivalent of the basic grasp of speech that most linguists believe is with us from birth. But just as syntax is nothing until words are built upon it, so too is a sense of right and wrong useless until someone teaches you how to apply it.It’s the people around us who do that teaching often quite well. Once again, however, humans aren’t the ones who dreamed up such a mentoring system. At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, de Waal was struck by how vigorously apes enforced group norms one evening when the zookeepers were calling their chimpanzees in for dinner. The keepers’ rule at Arnhem was that no chimps would eat until the entire community was present, but two adolescents grew willful, staying outside the building. The hours it took to coax them inside caused the mood in the hungry colony to turn surly. That night the keepers put the delinquents to bed in a separate area a sort of protective custody to shield them from reprisals. But the next day the adolescents were on their own, and the troop made its feelings plain, administering a sound beating. The chastened chimps were the first to come in that evening. Animals have what de Waal calls “oughts” rules that the group must follow and the community enforces them.


Human communities impose their own oughts, but they can vary radically from culture to culture. Take the phenomenon of Good Samaritan laws that require passersby to assist someone in peril. Our species has a very conflicted sense of when we ought to help someone else and when we ought not, and the general rule is, Help those close to home and ignore those far away. That’s in part because the plight of a person you can see will always feel more real than the problems of someone whose suffering is merely described to you. But part of it is also rooted in you from a time when the welfare of your tribe was essential for your survival but the welfare of an opposing tribe was not and might even be a threat.

In the 21st century, we retain a powerful remnant of that primal dichotomy, which is what impels us to step in and help a mugging victim or, in the astonishing case of Wesley Autrey, New York City’s so-called Subway Samaritan, jump onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train to rescue a sick stranger but allows us to decline to send a small contribution to help the people of Darfur. “The idea that you can save the life of a stranger on the other side of the world by making a modest material sacrifice is not the kind of situation our social brains are prepared for,” says Greene.

Throughout most of the world, you’re still not required to aid a stranger, but in France and elsewhere, laws now make it a crime for passersby not to provide at least the up-close-and-personal aid we’re good at giving. In most of the U.S., we make a distinction between an action and an omission to act. Says Hauser: “In France they’ve done away with that difference.”

But you don’t need a state to create a moral code. The group does it too. One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping. Clubs, social groups and fraternities expel undesirable members, and the U.S. military retains the threat of discharge as a disciplinary tool, even grading the punishment as “other than honorable” or “dishonorable,” darkening the mark a former service person must carry for life.

Sometimes shunning emerges spontaneously when a society of millions recoils at a single member’s acts. O.J. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal may have outraged people, but it did make the morality tale surrounding him much richer, as the culture as a whole turned its back on him, denying him work, expelling him from his country club, refusing him service in a restaurant. In November his erstwhile publisher, who was fired in the wake of her and Simpson’s disastrous attempt to publish a book about the killings, sued her ex-employer, alleging that she had been “shunned” and “humiliated.” That, her former bosses might well respond, was precisely the point.

“Human beings were small, defenseless and vulnerable to predators,” says Barbara J. King, biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary and author of Evolving God. “Avoiding banishment would be important to us.”

Why We Turn Bad

With so many redundant moral systems to keep us in line, why do we so often fall out of ranks? Sometimes we can’t help it, as when we’re suffering from clinical insanity and behavior slips the grip of reason. Criminal courts are stingy about finding such exculpatory madness, requiring a disability so severe, the defendant didn’t even know the crime was wrong. That’s a very high bar that prevents all but a few from proving the necessary moral numbness.

With so many redundant moral systems to keep us in line, why do we so often fall out of ranks? Sometimes we can’t help it, as when we’re suffering from clinical insanity and behavior slips the grip of reason. Criminal courts are stingy about finding such exculpatory madness, requiring a disability so severe, the defendant didn’t even know the crime was wrong. That’s a very high bar that prevents all but a few from proving the necessary moral numbness.Things are different in the case of the cool and deliberate serial killer, who knows the criminality of his deeds yet continues to commit them. For neuroscientists, the iciness of the acts calls to mind the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railway worker who in 1848 was injured when an explosion caused a tamping iron to be driven through his prefrontal cortex. Improbably, he survived, but he exhibited stark behavioral changes becoming detached and irreverent, though never criminal. Ever since, scientists have looked for the roots of serial murder in the brain’s physical state.


A study published last year in the journal NeuroImage may have helped provide some answers. Researchers working through the National Institute of Mental Health scanned the brains of 20 healthy volunteers, watching their reactions as they were presented with various legal and illegal scenarios. The brain activity that most closely tracked the hypothetical crimes rising and falling with the severity of the scenarios occurred in the amygdala, a deep structure that helps us make the connection between bad acts and punishments. As in the trolley studies, there was also activity in the frontal cortex. The fact that the subjects themselves had no sociopathic tendencies limits the value of the findings. But knowing how the brain functions when things work well is one good way of knowing where to look when things break down.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never run off the moral rails in remotely as awful a way as serial killers do, but we do come untracked in smaller ways. We face our biggest challenges not when we’re called on to behave ourselves within our family, community or workplace but when we have to apply the same moral care to people outside our tribe.

The notion of the “other” is a tough one for Homo sapiens. Sociobiology has been criticized as one of the most reductive of sciences, ascribing the behavior of all living things humans included as nothing more than an effort to get as many genes as possible into the next generation. The idea makes sense, and all creatures can be forgiven for favoring their troop over others. But such bias turns dark fast.

Schulman, the psychologist and author, works with delinquent adolescents at a residential treatment center in Yonkers, New York, and was struck one day by the outrage that swept through the place when the residents learned that three of the boys had mugged an elderly woman. “I wouldn’t mug an old lady. That could be my grandmother,” one said. Schulman asked whom it would be O.K. to mug. The boy answered, “A Chinese delivery guy.” Explains Schulman: “The old lady is someone they could empathize with. The Chinese delivery guy is alien, literally and figuratively, to them.”

This kind of brutal line between insiders and outsiders is evident everywhere mobsters, say, who kill promiscuously yet go on rhapsodically about “family.” But it has its most terrible expression in wars, in which the dehumanization of the outsider is essential for wholesale slaughter to occur. Volumes have been written about what goes on in the collective mind of a place like Nazi Germany or the collapsing Yugoslavia. While killers like Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic can never be put on the couch, it’s possible to understand the xenophobic strings they play in their people.

“Yugoslavia is the great modern example of manipulating tribal sentiments to create mass murder,” says Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “You saw it in Rwanda and Nazi Germany too. In most cases of genocide, you have a moral entrepreneur who exploits tribalism for evil purposes.”

That, of course, does not take the stain of responsibility off the people who follow those leaders a case that war-crimes prosecutors famously argued at the Nuremberg trials and a point courageous people have made throughout history as they sheltered Jews during World War II or refuse to murder their Sunni neighbor even if a militia leader tells them to.

For grossly imperfect creatures like us, morality may be the steepest of all developmental mountains. Our opposable thumbs and big brains gave us the tools to dominate the planet, but wisdom comes more slowly than physical hardware. We surely have a lot of killing and savagery ahead of us before we fully civilize ourselves. The hope a realistic one, perhaps is that the struggles still to come are fewer than those left behind.

What Makes Us Moral, By Jerry Kluger, published in Time Magazine, 2007

Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain

New love can look for all the world like mental illness, a blend of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family and prompts out-of-character behavior – compulsive phone calling, serenades, yelling from rooftops – that could almost be mistaken for psychosis.

Now for the first time, neuroscientists have produced brain scan images of this fevered activity, before it settles into the wine and roses phase of romance or the joint holiday card routines of long-term commitment.

In an analysis of the images appearing  (recently) in The Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers in New York and New Jersey argue that romantic love is a biological urge distinct from sexual arousal.

It is closer in its neural profile to drives like hunger, thirst or drug craving, the researchers assert, than to emotional states like excitement or affection. As a relationship deepens, the brain scans suggest, the neural activity associated with romantic love alters slightly, and in some cases primes areas deep in the primitive brain that are involved in long-term attachment.

The research helps explain why love produces such disparate emotions, from euphoria to anger to anxiety, and why it seems to become even more intense when it is withdrawn. In a separate, continuing experiment, the researchers are analyzing brain images from people who have been rejected by their lovers.

“When you’re in the throes of this romantic love it’s overwhelming, you’re out of control, you’re irrational, you’re going to the gym at 6 a.m. every day – why? Because she’s there,” said Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and the co-author of the analysis. “And when rejected, some people contemplate stalking, homicide, suicide. This drive for romantic love can be stronger than the will to live.”

Brain imaging technology cannot read people’s minds, experts caution, and a phenomenon as many sided and socially influenced as love transcends simple computer graphics, like those produced by the technique used in the study, called functional M.R.I.

Still, said Dr. Hans Breiter, director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Collaboration at Massachusetts General Hospital, “I distrust about 95 percent of the M.R.I. literature and I would give this study an ‘A’; it really moves the ball in terms of understanding infatuation love.”

He added: “The findings fit nicely with a large, growing body of literature describing a generalized reward and aversion system in the brain, and put this intellectual construct of love directly onto the same axis as homeostatic rewards such as food, warmth, craving for drugs.”

In the study, Dr. Fisher, Dr. Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, led a team that analyzed about 2,500 brain images from 17 college students who were in the first weeks or months of new love. The students looked at a picture of their beloved while an M.R.I. machine scanned their brains. The researchers then compared the images with others taken while the students looked at picture of an acquaintance.

Functional M.R.I. technology detects increases or decreases of blood flow in the brain, which reflect changes in neural activity.

In the study, a computer-generated map of particularly active areas showed hot spots deep in the brain, below conscious awareness, in areas called the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area, which communicate with each other as part of a circuit.

These areas are dense with cells that produce or receive a brain chemical called dopamine, which circulates actively when people desire or anticipate a reward. In studies of gamblers, cocaine users and even people playing computer games for small amounts of money, these dopamine sites become extremely active as people score or win, neuroscientists say.

Yet falling in love is among the most irrational of human behaviors, not merely a matter of satisfying a simple pleasure, or winning a reward. And the researchers found that one particular spot in the M.R.I. images, in the caudate nucleus, was especially active in people who scored highly on a questionnaire measuring passionate love.

This passion-related region was on the opposite side of the brain from another area that registers physical attractiveness, the researchers found, and appeared to be involved in longing, desire and the unexplainable tug that people feel toward one person, among many attractive alternative partners.

This distinction, between finding someone attractive and desiring him or her, between liking and wanting, “is all happening in an area of the mammalian brain that takes care of most basic functions, like eating, drinking, eye movements, all at an unconscious level, and I don’t think anyone expected this part of the brain to be so specialized,” Dr. Brown said.

The intoxication of new love mellows with time, of course, and the brain scan findings reflect some evidence of this change, Dr. Fisher said.

In an earlier functional M.R.I. study of romance, published in 2000, researchers at University College London monitored brain activity in young men and women who had been in relationships for about two years. The brain images, also taken while participants looked at photos of their beloved, showed activation in many of the same areas found in the new study – but significantly less so, in the region correlated with passionate love, she said.

In the new study, the researchers also saw individual differences in their group of smitten lovers, based on how long the participants had been in the relationships. Compared with the students who were in the first weeks of a new love, those who had been paired off for a year or more showed significantly more activity in an area of the brain linked to long-term commitment.

Last summer, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta reported that injecting a ratlike animal called a vole with a single gene turned promiscuous males into stay-at-home dads – by activating precisely the same area of the brain where researchers in the new study found increased activity over time.

“This is very suggestive of attachment processes taking place,” Dr. Brown said. “You can almost imagine a time where instead of going to Match.com you could have a test to find out whether you’re an attachment type or not.”

One reason new love is so heart-stopping is the possibility, the ever-present fear, that the feeling may not be entirely requited, that the dream could suddenly end.

In a follow-up experiment, Dr. Fisher, Dr. Aron and Dr. Brown have carried out brain scans on 17 other young men and women who recently were dumped by their lovers. As in the new love study, the researchers compared two sets of images, one taken when the participants were looking at a photo of a friend, the other when looking at a picture of their ex.

Although they are still sorting through the images, the investigators have noticed one preliminary finding: increased activation in an area of the brain related to the region associated with passionate love. “It seems to suggest what the psychological literature, poetry and people have long noticed: that being dumped actually does heighten romantic love, a phenomenon I call frustration-attraction,” Dr. Fisher said in an e-mail message.

One volunteer in the study was Suzanna Katz, 22, of New York, who suffered through a breakup with her boyfriend three years ago. Ms. Katz said she became hyperactive to distract herself after the split, but said she also had moments of almost physical withdrawal, as if weaning herself from a drug.

“It had little to do with him, but more with the fact that there was something there, inside myself, a hope, a knowledge that there’s someone out there for you, and that you’re capable of feeling this way, and suddenly I felt like that was being lost,” she said in an interview.

And no wonder. In a series of studies, researchers have found that, among other processes, new love involves psychologically internalizing a lover, absorbing elements of the other person’s opinions, hobbies, expressions, character, as well as sharing one’s own. “The expansion of the self happens very rapidly, it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences there is, and short of threatening our survival it is one thing that most motivates us,” said Dr. Aron, of SUNY, a co-author of the study.

To lose all that, all at once, while still in love, plays havoc with the emotional, cognitive and deeper reward-driven areas of the brain. But the heightened activity in these areas inevitably settles down. And the circuits in the brain related to passion remain intact, the researchers say – intact and capable in time of flaring to life with someone new.

Money, Markets and Politics

I was caught up in the financial market turmoil some year ago – well since before the ‘credit crunch’ bankrupted Northern Rock as an independent financial institution. With the demise of Lehman Brothers, the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB, and AIG on the brink, I thought I’d give the matter some thought. As a rationalist, these events have spurred me to find out whether it is the possession and exercise of such immense wealth and instruments of financial leverage that drive the world, or whether it is anything more.   If it is just money that drives politics and world order, then we really are in trouble- not least because there are seismic changes in the characteristics of those who hold the levers of ‘money’. Most of our politicians are complicit in such changes and guilty of yielding to those with such intruments irrespective of ideology or moral fibre. It is almost impossible to be elected to many high offices unless one has such wealthy benefactors and bankers.

Let me start off with a paper that I was reading recently from Ethical Politics by Anitra Nelson that I think hit the ‘nail on the head’ in so many ways. For me, it compounds my view that absolute values have no place in a modern liberal democracy:

“The root of all evil” is the title Alan Macfarlane gives to a brief discussion of the social effect of money in a collection of articles on The Anthropology of Evil (Parkin, ed., 1985). Here Macfarlane briefly explores the basis of the idea that money is evil. He points to the obvious connection between money and evil demonstrated in the greed, consumerism and profiteering characteristic of capitalism. “Yet money, and all it symbolizes, is the root of all evil in a deeper sense than this,” writes Macfarlane. And he (71-2) elaborates:

“Viewed from outside the system, money can be seen to do something even more insidious. It subtly eliminates the very concept of evil. Or, rather, it makes it impossible to discriminate between good and evil…’Money’, which is a short-hand way of saying capitalistic relations, market values, trade and exchange, ushers in a world of moral confusion. This effect of money has been most obvious where a capitalistic, monetary economy has clashed with another, opposed, system. Thus it is anthropologists, who have…noted how money disrupts the moral as well as the economic world. As Burridge, for example, writes of the effect of money in Melanesia: money complicates the moral order, turning what was formerly black and white into greyness. Money, he argues, ‘…invites a complex differentiation and multiplication of the parts and qualities of man’ (Burridge 1969:45). More broadly, it is money, markets and market capitalism that eliminate absolute moralities. Not only is every moral system throughout the world equally valid, as Pascual noted, but, within every system, whatever is, is right.

I present this quote because I believe it raises an issue that is at the heart of the problem of Ethical Politics… In particular I worry about the political implications of accepting the labour theory of value. This is where I return to the Macfarlane quote, to Ethical Politics and money. The labour theory of value suggests that monetary exchange is rational in terms of socially necessary labour time. That implies an exchange of labour and the products necessary to sustain that labour giving the capitalist system rationality that I don’t believe it embodies. A bun fight theory of exchange might appear to be no theory at all, but war is war. Why is market exchange necessarily any more rational than gift exchange, love or war? Its quasi-mathematical appearance, made possible by the use of money, is a primary deception.

If the labour theory of value was correct monetary exchange might remain a useful technique to use in the transitional stage to socialism. Marx regards dispensing with the state and money as essential. But, in the same way as taking over the state was a new stage in the proletarian revolution, some have argued that monetary exchange can be adapted to socialist ends, at least temporarily. The communist experiments of the twentieth century in Russia and Cuba grappled with the difficulties of monetary exchange but never overcame them (Nelson, 2001). Especially in his early works Marx castigated the utopian socialist for their confidence in the manipulation of money to eliminate exploitation. Even though he designed his theories as a critique of their, as he saw it, muddleheaded proposals for reform, the labour theory of value has given solace to reformers following their tradition. In fact money seems to be a veil for social war; money is a weapon (Cleaver, 1979).

Ethical politics

… I have access to certain natural resources. I have some knowledge of the potential and limitations of local human and non human resources. I have mouths to feed, generations to nurture, civilisations to reproduce culturally, socially and materially. I don’t need money to evaluate these human and non human resources. I don’t need money to distribute these human and non human resources. I do not need money to (re)produce these human and non human resources. I do need commonly agreed upon social principles and processes to assess the utility of these human and non human resources, to organise the reproduction of them and to distribute them. Our job, the job of ethical politicians today, is to design non monetary forms of appropriation and distribution of material and non material resources. I believe that this will constitute the basis of a truly postmodern society featuring ecologically sustainable behaviour (ESB) and social justice. A society without myths associated with modern society regarding money. The ethical politics of a post economic universe must feature substantive grassroots democracy and ESB. There will be no pretence at neutrality but rather a conscious and conscientious effort to create a balance within and between the fulfillment of the various needs and wants of all the contenders for existence. We want a world where people deal with people and non human nature directly and collectively and care.


Bellofiore, Riccardo, “Marx after Schumpeter”, Capital and Class, # 24, Winter 1985: 60-74.
Bellofiore, Riccardo, (Ed.), Marxian Economics, a Reappraisal, Volumes I and II, London/New York, Macmillan Press/St Martin’s Press, 1998.
Cleaver, Harry, Reading Capital Politically, Brighton (Sussex), The Harvester Press, 1979.
Macfarlane, Alan, “The root of all evil”. In Parkin, David (ed.) The Anthropology of Evil, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985: 57-76.
Nelson, Anitra, Marx’s Concept of Money: the God of Commodities, Routledge, London, 1999.
Nelson, Anitra, “The poverty of money: Marxian insights for ecological economists”, Ecological Economics, March 2001: 499-511.

What it Means to be Human

I was reading a recent report related to research initiatives throughout the European Union related to ‘Getting to the source of what makes us human’ (ISBN 92-79-03833-8), and I wanted to bring it to the attention of all rationalists. The full report can be found here.

What has surprised me is how many European institutions are getting left behind in leading-edge research. Certainly, the initiative has had advantages in terms of collaboration between various centers of excellence throughout Europe, and the commission money has been forthcoming on many research topics. My argument has always been to build on leading edge research – wherever it is based. I am surprised that many universities are researching subjects where many of the conclusions are already available.

…So What Makes us Human?

How and why are humans different? What features make our cognitive facilities unique and what are the origins of these features? The focal questions behind the NEST Pathfinder initiative, What it Means to Be Human, foster cross-disciplinary research projects that bring to bear the latest insights from fields including genetics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics and anthropology to help generate answers for one of science’s most elusive subjects.

The questions are scientifically precise and limited, but can be addressed from a number of disciplinary angles. In particular, What it Means to Be Human aims to address:

  • the evolutionary dimension of individual development as regards to human cognitive faculties, taking account of the range of relevant factors from genetics to cultural context;
  • the influence of change of life circumstances on the development of cognitive functions, such as the development of language and non-verbal communication;
  • executive functions, reasoning and decision-making, including cooperative behaviour, which might also take account of relationships between conscious and unconscious aspects of behaviour.

With its common values, varied cultures, and strong research tradition in many of the relevant fields, Europe has a vital interest in this area and real potential for fostering scientific progress. This progress would have considerable future benefits. By understanding the specific nature and limits of human conceptual reasoning, for example, it would be possible to devise more powerful artificial learning technologies. Improved education strategies could be developed as a result of further knowledge of specifically human capabilities to perceive and encode information and experience. Furthermore, greater insight into the origins of human motivation, social behaviour and cooperation would assist the design of social and cultural institutions to accommodate human needs in better ways.

This global understanding of the human mind is clearly a very long way off. However, in order to move forward, there is a crucial need for interdisciplinary work to generate concepts that make sense not only at a particular level of analysis, but also within a broader ‘system of understanding’ that encompasses these different levels. For example, if the links between genetics and mental faculties are to be understood, there will be a need to find categories for defining behavioural phenomena which allow them to be linked to genetic factors, and vice versa.

This need for interdisciplinary work is all the more pressing because of the very rapid pace of developments in the various relevant fields, in particular biology and genomics. The ‘What it Means to Be Human’ initiative offers the ideal, productive arena for this interdisciplinary research.

Exploring the Origins of the Human Mind

Our advanced ability to think, to express emotions and to influence the behaviour of those around us is part of what makes the human mind unique. These higher cognitive functions have evolved through major changes in the structure, functional complexity and size of the brain at different points along the evolutionary tree that links us to monkeys and apes. Identifying the molecular basis for these changes is key to understanding which cognitive abilities, and their corresponding genes, are unique to humans.

The NEST PKB140404 project, part of the PATHFINDER initiative to investigate ‘What it means to be human’, will use an integrated approach, bridging cognitive neuroscience and molecular evolution, to probe the differences between the brains of humans and their closest relatives, the apes. The consortium’s multidisciplinary research teams, combining skills in molecular and evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, clinical psychiatry and neuroscience, aim to reconstruct the history of the evolutionary changes that led to the emergence of the human mind as it is today. In a three-pronged approach, each team will look for turning points in the development of the human mind by studying different stages in the molecular process.

Pinpointing molecular change The Swiss group will search for recently evolved genes that have arisen through retroposition – a type of gene duplication – and that are associated with cognitive abilities. A burst of retroposition started around the time when the group comprising humans, apes and Old World monkeys branched off on the evolutionary tree. Some of the new genes created by this evolutionary process enabled new neurological functions and resulted, through positive selection, in the development of higher cognitive abilities. The German group will use advanced micro-array technology to scan genes shared by humans and apes to look for those expressed differently in each species’ brain. As some differences in expression can lead to changes in gene function, the project’s challenge is to identify which of these differences are associated with changes in cognitive ability and whether they could be responsible for the human brain’s uniqueness.

 A third approach, by the British group, will identify which genes dysfunction in human diseases like schizophrenia, by comparing post-mortem brain samples taken from schizophrenia patients with those from a healthy control group, and with those from the corresponding region of the ape brain. Schizophrenia is characterised by a reduced ability to understand and manipulate the mental representations of others. As this and other cognitive abilities affected by the disease are less developed or not present in apes, it is likely that the human genes associated with schizophrenia play a pivotal role in human cognition.

Setting us apart

This project has the potential to unravel several of the mysteries surrounding the birth of the human mind, by revealing and dating some of the genetic changes that have contributed to our shared heritage and set us apart from other species. An important step in validating the project’s findings will be confirming the function of the candidate human cognition genes identified by the three complementary approaches. To do this, the consortium will carry out in vivo studies using transgenic mice carrying the human gene and compare their resulting phenotypes with mice carrying an equivalent gene from the ape genome.

In the long term, they hope to show that replacing a sufficiently large number of mouse genes with their human counterparts will lead to altered behaviour in the mice and provide further insights into genetically regulated human cognitive faculties. This ambitious reconstruction of the evolutionary history of human cognitive abilities will set the standards for new work in the area. The consortium will explore new horizons in cognitive science and should make an important contribution to solving the enigma of human nature.

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Forming Opinions en Mass

In Plato’s Gorgias, the character of Socrates poses a serious challenge to the possibility of a craft of rhetoric as a craft of speaking about anything. His claim is that the craft one uses when speaking about a subject is the same craft by which one understands the subject. Rhetoric is therefore redundant and dangerous. It is redundant because one does not need anything above and beyond the understanding of a craft to speak about the craft . It is dangerous because it enables one to pretend understanding of a craft, falsely persuade others that they now understand that craft, and encourage speakers to seek pleasure in the audience rather than understanding. Modern journalism contains many of the same properties of Ancient rhetoric. It too claims to be a craft of speaking about anything.

The debate begins with Socrates asking Gorgias what the craft of rhetoric is. Gorgias responds by saying that it is the greatest of all crafts. Of course, Socrates is unsatisfied with this answer, so he asks of what rhetoric is a craft. Gorgias claims that it is the craft that uses only speech, not manual labour. Here is where Socrates catches Gorgias. He points out mathematics and astronomy use only words, and they are the crafts used when speaking about numbers and stars. The deeper claim here is that the craft used when speaking about a subject is the same as the craft used when understanding the subject.

Gorgias concedes Socrates’ claim that astronomy is the craft used when speaking knowledgeably about a subject. Gorgias attempts two separate parries here. The first is that he says that rhetoric enables the speaker to speak about a craft persuasively even without understanding it. He gives the example of helping his brother, a doctor, persuade a recalcitrant patient to undergo treatment. He boasts that, even though neither he nor the patient know medicine, he was able to speak more persuasively than the doctor. Perhaps realising he has conceded something rather shameful sounding, he then attempts a second argument. He argues that rhetoric’s specific area of expertise is the just and the unjust. This is its proper subject, as there is no other craft associated with the just and the unjust as there is with stars, and it is the topic on which rhetors spend much of their time speaking.

The conversation breaks down here, as Gorgias believes everyone knows what justice is and Socrates believes it is a specialised craft. When Gorgias’s young pupil, Polus, takes over, Socrates really lets him have it (Socrates here is the most caustic and agressive he appears in any Platonic dialogue; the nastiness here is striking). Socrates bluntly claims that rhetoric is not a craft and that rhetoric is to politics what pastry baking is to medicine. When doctors speak about medicine using their medical knowledge, they know about their subject and seek to impart at least some of that knowledge to their hearers. Rhetoric allows the ignorant to persuade the ignorant, or, at best, allows the knowledgeable to persuade the ignorant without actually making them any less ignorant. How do they do so? They do so by appealing to their emotions and, moreover, by pandering to their emotions. They try to associate their desired conclusion with positive emotions while trying to associate what they are trying to argue against with negative emotions. As such, they merely have a knack for creating pleasure in their hearers at the right things, like pastry bakers pretending to be doctors, hawking their wares as medicine while only selling what is pleasant.

Let us return, then, to journalism. Journalism has many features similar to rhetoric. Newspapers and television speak about any subject they believe will be of interest to the audience, and uses the same people to do so. Many of the people involved are trained in journalism, and not in the specific topics they discuss. Is it then even plausible to believe that journalists have expertise in every subject they discuss? Even in those cases where they may do so or they are quoting experts, are they imparting understanding to the audiences or just (true) opinions? A quick look at today’s front section of the National Post speaks about military strategy, trade agreements, engineering, medicine, meteorology and flying helicopters. However, the authors of these articles are neither generals, economists, engineers, doctors, meteorologists nor pilots. If they do not understand the craft they are speaking of, no one can learn anything about the craft from them either.

Journalists do, however, focus on a specific type of subject, much as Gorgias did when his hand was forced over expertise. They will focus on politics, the area of the just and the unjust. A reader should ask, then, what specific qualifications journalism gives journalists to speak about the just and the unjust. Are they, for instance, special experts on what contitutes human happiness and how to provide it? Do they know how to distribute goods appropriately? Have they worked through hours of humiliating and painful dialectic in order to carefully draw moral distinctions? Have they given any serious study to politics or to ethics at all, or do they assume that justice and injustice are things that everyone knows? Instead, journalists have no special expertise to speak about justice and injustice, except that they know how to speak persuasively. This persuasion, like all persuasion, functions by giving emotional pleasure and associating it with the desired object. It is, as Socrates said, a form of pastry baking.

If this sounds a little caustic, I apologise. It is hard to reflect Socrates’ argument without reflecting his tone. However, his claim is an utterly devastating one concerning how we form opinions. Without actually understanding a subject, we are easy prey to those who would help us form our opinions using our emotions. As a result, there will always be emotional pastry bakers out there pretending to be doctors. In Socrates’ time, it was the rhetors, and in our time, it is the journalists.

D Bader

Sociable media are media that enhance communication and the formation of social ties among people. Such media are not new – letter writing can be traced back thousands of years – but the advent of the computer has brought about an immense number of new forms.
Researchers in this field look at how existing technologies are used, how they affect the relationships among the people using them, and how they transform society. They also design new technologies, drawing from fields such as cognitive science, sociology and urban design to create systems that better support social interaction. They examine the ways social cues are communicated in the real and the virtual world, discover the limits imposed upon on-line communities by their mediated nature, and explore directions that virtual societies can take that are impossible for physical ones. The goal is to understand and improve the social aspects of mediated communication.

Mediated communication is any communication in which the participants communicate via some sort of medium, such as written letters, telephone calls, email, etc. This is in contrast to unmediated, face-to-face communication in which the participants are in direct contact with each other. In unmediated communication, social cues are communicated through words, tone of voice, gesture, clothing, facial expression, proximity, etc. These cues provide information about a person’s age, race, social class, and gender, they reveal emotional state, and they help to choreograph the interaction. In mediated communication, some or most of these cues are absent, and other cues, nonexistent in the unmediated world, may be present. The social information that participants can assess about each other varies greatly from one medium to another. Participants might not know with whom they are speaking or how large is their audience – or they might have access to a detailed history of their partners’ interactions or to the assessments others have made about them. They may be communicating in real time (synchronously) or over intervals ranging from seconds to days; the response to a message thus might be an immediate emotional reaction or a well-thought out reply.

The sociable media approach to evaluating media differs from the traditional, information theoretic approach. With the latter approach the key measurement of a medium is the amount of information, measured in bits, that a particular channel can carry and the goal is higher capacity and efficiency. The sociable approach is more subjective and context dependent. For example, given a sufficiently high bandwidth channel, one might think that videoconferencing, in which many thousands of bits are transmitted per second, would be clearly preferable to text interaction, a much lower bandwidth medium. Yet while more information is transmitted by video, it is not clear, from a sociable perspective, which is better. Is it important to know what the participants look like? Or is it preferable that their ages, race, weight, etc. not be known? Is the interaction the focus of everyone’s attention, or is it a peripheral activity, one carried out while attending to other tasks?

The sociable perspective also helps us to understand how social information is encoded in a message. At first glance, the text of the message might appear to be its sole source of information. Yet there are other important social cues to found. They are in the style of writing – whether formal or informal, in standard English or in prose peppered with emoticons, acronyms and abbreviations. They are in the recipient list, for one can copy others on a message, invisibly as co-conspirators or openly as witnesses. They are in the timing of replies, whether response was immediate or days or weeks later. The study of sociable media involves the evaluation and interpretation of the social nuances and affordances of different media in different situations.

The roots of sociable media reach back about 4000 years. Although the earliest known clay tablets are administrative records, archeologists have found plaques bearing personal correspondence dating as far back as 2000 BC. Throughout most of this history, letters (i.e., messages written on physical objects which are conveyed from sender to receiver) have been the dominant form of sociable media. Letter writing has sustained friendship and initiated romances over great distances. Historical accounts of brides being courted across the Atlantic attest to the ability of this medium to convey an impression of the character, personality and emotional intensity of the writer. Mediated spoken communication became possible only in the late 19th century with the invention of the telephone, but since then conversing at a distance has quickly become an indispensable part of daily social life. Visual images have long been an important, if infrequent, medium for social communication (Henry VIII married his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, on the basis of Hans Holbein’s portrait of her). The development of inexpensive film and cameras and more recently, the ability to easily send images electronically, are making transmitted images an increasingly common yet still evolving form of social communication.

The advent of computer-mediated communication has made possible many new forms of sociable media. The computer brings a great deal of design freedom, allowing many aspects of the medium, such as whether it is ephemeral or persistent, named or anonymous, to be intentionally designed, rather than being technologically determined. Email, online chats, newsgroups, simulation games, weblogs, virtual reality conferencing are but a few of the existing computer-based sociable media, and many more are yet to be invented.

Sociability is an essential part of human nature. We live and thrive in cooperative groups. Social interaction helps us form relationships and coalitions, evaluate status, discourage free-riders, and enforce local norms. Much of our conversation is social, either in topic (as when discussing other’s actions) or form (as in the status messages encoded in tone of voice and grammar). Yet the importance of sociability is often unrecognized. Information exchange is often assumed to the primary purpose of language and conversations in which no explicit knowledge is imparted are judged a waste of time. Yet in any conversation, no matter how seemingly pointless, the participants are exchanging social information, subtly encoded.

Communication technologies are not necessarily designed for sociability. They are often developed within the context of engineering and business, domains that prize efficiency and utility. Yet people, being highly social, quickly find social uses for any communication medium. The history of communication technologies illustrates both the commercial world’s under-estimation of the importance of social communication and people’s alacrity at adapting media for social purposes. The telephone was initially marketed as a business tool; it was several decades before its social use for residential customers was fully recognized as an essential component of the business. The early plans for networked computers did not envision their social potential, but the system’s early users developed email within two years of the initial connection. The web was initially conceived as an academic publishing tool, yet personal homepages with pictures, anecdotes, and links to one’s friends appeared almost as soon as an accessible web browser was available. Today, there is growing awareness of the importance of the social uses of media and much more effort is being made to create deliberately sociable media.

Designing new sociable media involves understanding the features that affect how they can be used. There are many of these, but among the most important are rhythm, format, bandwidth, permanence and identification. Email, for example, is typically asynchronous, text-based, low-bandwidth, persistent, with a wide range in the participants’ identifications. An online game, for comparison, might be synchronous, graphical, medium-bandwidth, ephemeral and anonymous.

Rhythm (asynchronous or synchronous): The rhythm of the medium – whether it is synchronous or asynchronous – describes how quickly messages are exchanged with it.

With synchronous media, the participants communicate at the same time. Face to face conversations are synchronous, as are phone calls, and some computer-based media such as chat. The participants must be available at the same time, providing a sense of co-presence: even if they are physically far from each other.

With asynchronous media, the participants communicate independently. Email and written letters are asynchronous. The time it takes to send a message ranges from seconds in the case of email, to a day to several weeks for letters (longer in the pre-air-transport past). Participants in an asynchronous discussion are able to compose their messages more carefully. They do not need to be available at the same time, though this also means they do not have the sense of presence that users of synchronous media have
The rhythm of a conversation – how quickly each participant responds, the length of each utterance or message, etc. – is itself expressive. Responding to an email within a few seconds conveys a different message than waiting days or weeks to answer. Rhythm is also roughly correlated with formality, with asynchronous media often used more formally.
The speed at which a medium can convey a message affects the type of information that is exchanged and the communication style. As communication frequency increases, messages become more informal and intimate. This is true even within the same medium – rapidly exchanged papers notes are more informal than a letter with weeks of travel to its destination. Written letters, which at their fastest are still slower than computational media, are relatively formal, with conventional greetings and closings and a body with at least nominal content. Email is usually more informal, with features of both written and oral language; its users may omit greetings and sometimes send messages conversationally, in a series of rapid exchanges. Instant messages are very informal, with many features of oral communication, including a greater use of non-verbal expressions, such as emoticons (punctuation-like markings that indicate the emotional intent of the writer, e.g. 🙁 meaning sad or 😉 meaning winking, to indicate. that one was being humorous or ironic) and other representations of embodied action.

Format (text, voice, images, etc.): Messages can be sent in a variety of formats, including text, sounds, images, and programs. Some social information requires particular formats. To know what someone looks like requires an image, to see their gestures and expressions requires a moving image. One can create a list of participants using text, but to present their relationships in a more complex non-linear order requires graphics. A medium may translate the format of the message: a textual email that is ordinarily perceived visually, as written text, may be presented as spoken words by a text-to-speech synthesizer. Most of our experience with mediated communication focuses on the verbal, whether written or spoken. We are just beginning to explore the potential of communicating within graphical environments, to experiment with sending interactive experiences.

Bandwidth (from high to low): Bandwidth is the amount of information that a channel can convey. Low bandwidth media require sending relatively few bits per message and take less time to transmit, an especially important feature when using a slow connection. Text is low-bandwidth, while sound and video are high. The connection between the information bandwidth of the medium – how much information, in the mathematical sense, is sent – and the social bandwidth of the medium – how much social and expressive information is sent – is not simply linear. Text, which is very low bandwidth, can be a very expressive and effective form of communication. Going from voice only communication (i.e. the telephone) to image and voice (i.e. the videophone) greatly increases the number of bits conveyed, but does not necessarily make for a better social medium.

The bandwidth of network connections has been steadily increasing, but so has the size of the material people want to send. Compression is the process of making a message smaller, without losing important information. What is “important” may vary from application to application. For sociable media, maintaining the integrity of social cues is paramount. With video communication, for example, there may not be sufficient bandwidth to both send detailed images and to send them without delays. Experiments have shown that it is preferable to reduce image detail to maintain the timing of the sequences; this keeps the image will in sync with the voice and ensures that gestures and glances are seen as they are made, an important rhythm since the perceived timing of these expressive actions affects their meaning.

Permanence (persistent or ephemeral): Media can be persistent or ephemeral. Any physical medium is persistent, as are all asynchronous media, since they must be stored in some form. Other media can be made persistent – a phone call is normally ephemeral, but if it is recorded it is persistant.
Persistent conversations among multiple participants are a new phenomena which became feasible on a large scale only with the advent of the computer. In their various formulations (private mailing lists, public newsgroups, bulletin boards, etc.) they enable a large number of people, often initially strangers, to converse about almost any imaginable topic. They have become one of the most popular forms of online social interaction, and their role in reshaping society – in redefining how we establish social ties, where we gather information, how we form opinions – is still developing.

The permanence of a medium has important privacy implications. Upon delivery, an ephemeral message is gone, except in the participants’ memory. It cannot be subsequently conveyed to others except by creating a new message telling about it. A persistent message, however, can be conveyed to others who were not privy to the original conversation. For many years, participants in online newsgroups (large asynchronous online conversations) assumed that their discussions were ephemeral, for they disappeared from most servers after a few weeks. Yet these discussions had been archived and with the advent of web-based search engines, were made publicly available, along with the search tools to easily find all the posts ever made by an individual. The privacy issues here are not only the reading of postings by people other than the intended audience, but also the reading of them outside of their original context.

Identity (named, pseudonymous, anonymous).

Identity is at the core of all social interactions. We care about how others perceive us and devote considerable energy to conveying our own identity. Our perception of other’s identity is an essential context for understanding their words and actions, for knowing what sort of behavior to expect from them and how to act towards them, and to understand what their role in our lives might be.

Identity plays a key role in virtual communities. In communication, which is the primary activity, knowing the identity of those with whom you communicate is essential for understanding and evaluating an interaction. Yet in the disembodied world of the virtual community, identity is also ambiguous. Many of the basic cues about personality and social role we are accustomed to in the physical world are absent. Some claim that the ability to establish an independent and disembodied identity is one of the most valuable aspects of on-line culture – that it allows people to explore roles and relationships that would otherwise be closed to them. Others claim that anonymity encourages irresponsible, hostile behavior – and that an anonymous community is an oxymoron.
The relationship between an on-line persona and a physical self is handled differently in various on-line environments, often because of interface decisions built into the system technology. Some systems make it impossible to trace a participant’s real-life name; others try to ensure that messages are ascribed to their author’s physical being – and the cultures that evolve are strikingly different.

In the physical world, we typically know something about the identity of a person with whom we are speaking. Even if we do not know their name, we can detect cues about their age, race, gender, affiliations, etc. in their clothing, voice and face. Online, this is not necessarily so. Participants in a online forum may be anonymous, their real names unknown, with no tie even to an online persona. They may pseudonymous, their real names unknown, but with a persistent record of their actions available. Or they may be named, their real names and identity known and verified. Anonymous communication allows people to talk freely about topics that they might otherwise be afraid to discuss, such as personal health issues or political criticism. Yet anonymity also allows disruptive and anti-social behavior to flourish. Pseudonymous communication, in which a person participates in online interactions using a persistent persona, allows for the establishment of reputation. To the extent that the person behind the persona values this reputation, it encourages responsible behavior. Indeed, it has been posited that one of the benefits of the online world is the possibility of creating communities in which the participants do not know each other’s race, age or gender, and where identity is instead primarily based on one’s history of behavior.

People now have numerous ways to communicate, including traditional letters, telephone calls, email, instant messaging and video-conferencing. They can participate in mediated games or search online for tennis partners, childcare providers and potential lifetime mates. Communication media are becoming ubiquitous, meaning they exist everywhere. We are rapidly approaching the time when, for millions of people, mediated sociability will be with them at all times, no matter where they are or what they are doing. The challenge for the field of sociable media is not simply to invent ever newer ways of communicating, but also to understand the social implications of ubiquitous and omnipresent communication media..

One significant change is the increasing emphasis on subjective and social concepts of place and distance, over the purely physical. Communication media are by definition technologies that allow people to communicate between distant locations – thus, they have always played a role in reducing the significance of physical distance. More recent technologies have accelerated this reduction, both in quantity, by making communication faster across ever greater distances, and in quality, by transmitting immediate presence through synchronous media. While a synchronous media such as letters transmit information from one place to a distant one, synchronous media create a virtual space, a shared non-physical environment in which the interaction occurs. We have seen this for many years with the telephone and the effect has become more apparent with the advent of mobile phones. Mobile phone users may move through a physical space but their attention and reactions are occurring in the virtual space of their conversation. A new 
phenomenon is the sending of presence information without an accompanying message. There are systems that show when their users are logged in, how long they have been idle. Users of these systems receive a continuous flow of information about their distant friends, colleagues, or family members, shifting the center of awareness from the physical to the mediated world.

Spatial metaphors have always been part of our concepts of relationship – we have close friends, distant relatives. Social technologies are making this metaphor literal, as we move towards a time the concepts of place and distance will be increasingly based on personal relationships rather than physical location. Are you alone when chatting online from an empty apartment? When none of your friends are online, though you are in a crowded café? What happens to local ties as associations are increasingly formed based on affinity and common interests, rather than physical proximity? The implications of this change, both for the social and physical realm, are many.

Another significant change is the number of people we with whom we keep in contact. It is much less costly (in money, time and effort) to maintain personal ties via email than by paying personal visits. One challenge this brings to the field of sociable media is to build tools to help people manage this complex personal social world. Not only are we in touch with more people, but we have fewer cues with which to remember them. When we meet someone in the physical world, we see their face and hear their voice, we see them within a spatial context that helps provide us with a well-defined memory. Online, we may see little of the person (perhaps just an email address) , and encounter them in a social setting (such as a discussion board) with few if any visual memory cues. Designers of new social technologies are developing ways to help people keep track of these relationships by creating visualizations of social information, such as a person’s interaction history, the contents of one’s email archive, the network of connections in a virtual community, etc.

The network’s ability to connect us with more and more people may be infinite, but our attention is not. Are these large numbers of weaker ties replacing or supplementing stronger ties? Are we replacing stronger ties with a greater number of weaker ties? If the former, social theories suggest that we may be moving to a world where people have greater access to ideas, information, and opportunists, due to the wider range of people with whom they are in contact, but also to a world where social support is weaker and people’s sense of responsibility for each other is diminished. The goal for the observer of sociable media is to understand the implications of media as they are built; for the designer, it is understand what sort of world he or she hopes to foster, to learn from these observations and create new technologies that lead to this goal.

Sociable Media, Judith Donath

Mind & Brain

We all believe that we have minds – and that minds, whatever they may be, are not like other worldly things. What makes us think that thoughts are made of different stuff? Because, it seems, thoughts can’t be things; they have no weights or sounds or shapes, and cannot be touched or heard or seen. In order to explain all this, most thinkers of the past believed that feelings, concepts, and ideas must exist in a separate mental world. But this raises too many questions. What links our concept about, say, a cat with an actual cat in the physical world? How does a cause in either world affect what takes place in the other world? In the physical world we make new things by rearranging other things; is that how new ideas come to be, or were they somewhere all along? Are minds peculiar entities, possessed alone by brains like ours – or could such qualities be shared, to different degrees, by everything? It seems to me that the dual-world scheme creates a maze of mysteries that leads to problems worse than before.

We’ve heard a good deal of discussion about the idea that the brain is the bridge between those worlds. At first this seems appealing but it soon leads to yet worse problems in philosophy. I maintain that all the trouble stems from making a single great mistake. Brains and minds are not different at all; they do not exist in separate worlds; they are simply different points of view–ways of describing the very same things. Once we see how this is so, that famous problem of mind and brain will scarcely seem a problem at all, because …

Minds are simply what brains do.

I don’t mean to say that brains or minds are simple; brains are immensely complex machines-and so are what they do. I merely mean to say that the nature of their relationship is simple. Whenever we speak about a mind, we’re referring to the processes that move our brains from state to state. Naturally, we cannot expect to find any compact description to cover every detail of all the processes in a human brain, because that would involve the details of the architectures of perhaps a hundred different sorts of computers, interconnected by thousands of specialized bundles of connections. It is an immensely complex matter of engineering. Nevertheless, when the mind is regarded, in principle, in terms of what the brain may do, many questions that are usually considered to be philosophical can now be recognized as merely psychological-because the long-sought connections between mind and brain do not involve two separate worlds, but merely relate two points of view.

Memory and Change

What do brains do? Doing means changing. Whenever we learn or ‘change our minds’, our brains are engaged in changing their states. To comprehend the relationship between mind and brain, we must understand the relationship between what things do and what things are; what something does is simply an aspect of that thing considered over some span of time. When we see a ball roll down a hill, we appreciate that the rolling is neither the ball itself, nor something apart in some other world – but merely an aspect of the ball’s extension in space-time; it is a description of the ball, over time, seen from the viewpoint of physical laws. Why is it so much harder to appreciate that thinking is an aspect of the brain, that also could be described, in principle, in terms of the self-same physical laws? The answer is that minds do not seem physical to us because we know so little of the processes inside brains.

We can only describe how something changes by contrast with what remains the same. Consider how we use expressions like “I remember X.” Memories must be involved with a record of changes in our brains, but such changes must be rather small because to undergo too large a change is to lose any sense of identity. This intrusion of a sense of self makes the subject of memory difficult; we like to think of ourselves as remaining unchanged – no matter how much we change what we think. For example, we tend to talk about remembering events (or learning facts, or acquiring skills) as though there were a clear separation between what we call the Self and what we regard as like data that are separate from but accessible to the self. However, it is hard to draw the boundary between a mind and what that mind may think about and this is another aspect of brains that makes them seem different to us from machines. We are used to thinking about machines in terms of how they affect other materials. But it makes little sense to think of brains as though they manufacture thoughts the way that factories makes cars because brains, like computers, are largely engaged in processes that change themselves . Whenever a brain makes a memory, this alters what that brain may later do.

Our experience with computers over the past few decades has helped us to clarify our understanding of such matters. The early applications of computers usually maintained a rather clear distinction between the program and the data on which it operates. But once we started to develop programs that changed themselves, we also began to understand that there is no fundamental difference between acquiring new data and acquiring new processes. Such distinctions turned out to be not absolute, but relative to other issues of perspective and complexity. When we say that minds are what brains do, we must also ask whether every other process has some corresponding sort of mind. One reply might be that this is merely a matter of degree: people have well-developed minds, while bricks or stones have almost none. Another reply might try to insist that only a person can have a mind -and, maybe, certain animals. But neither side would be wrong or right; the issue is not about a fact, but about when to use a certain word. Those who wish to use the term “mind” only for certain processes should specify which processes. The problem with this is that we don’t yet have adequate ways to classify processes. Human brains are uniquely complex, and do things that no other things do – and we must try to learn how brains do those things.

This brings us back to what it means to talk about what something does. Is that different from the thing itself? Again it is a matter of how we describe it. What complicates that problem for common sense psychology is that we feel compelled to think in terms of Selves, and of what those Selves proceed to think about. To make this into a useful technical distinction, we need some basis for dividing the brain into parts that change quickly and parts that change slowly. The trouble is that we don’t yet know enough about the brain to make such distinctions properly. In any case, if we agree that minds are simply what brains do, it makes no further sense to ask how minds do what they do.

Embodiments of Minds

One reason why the mind-brain problem has always seemed mysterious is that minds seem to us so separate from their physical embodiments. Why do we find it so easy to imagine the same mind being moved to a different body or brain – or even existing by itself? One reason could be that concerns about minds are mainly concerns about changes in states – and these do not often have much to do with the natures of those states themselves. From a functional or procedural viewpoint, we often care only about how each agent changes state in response to the actions upon it of other agents. This is why we so often can discuss the organization of a community without much concern for the physical constitution of its members. It is the same inside a computer; it is only signals representing changes that matter, whereas we have no reason to be concerned with properties that do not change. Consider that it is just those properties of physical objects that change the least – such as their colors, sizes, weights, or shapes – that, naturally, are the easiest to sense. Yet these, precisely because they don’t change, are the ones that matter least of all, in computational processes. So naturally minds seem detached from the physical. In regard to mental processes, it matters not what the parts of brains are; it only matters what they do–and what they are connected to.

A related reason why the mind-brain problem seems hard is that we all believe in having a Self – some sort of compact, pointlike entity that somehow knows what’s happening throughout a vast and complex mind. It seems to us that this entity persists through our lives in spite of change. This feeling manifests itself when we say “I think” rather than “thinking is happening”, or when we agree that “I think therefore I am,” instead of “I think, therefore I change”. Even when we recognize that memories must change our minds, we feel that something else stays fixed – the thing that has those memories. In chapter 4 of The Society of Mind[l] I argue that this sense of having a Self is an elaborately constructed illusion – albeit one of great and practical value. Our brains are endowed with machinery destined to develop persistent self-images and to maintain their coherence in the face of continuous change. But those changes are substantial, too; your adult mind is not very like the one mind you had in infancy. To be sure, you may have changed much since childhood – but if one succeeds, in later life, to manage to avoid much growth, that poses no great mystery.

We tend to think about reasoning as though it were something quite apart from the knowledge and memories that it exploits. If we’re told that Tweety is a bird, and that any bird should be able to fly, then it seems to us quite evident that Tweety should be able to fly. This ability to draw conclusions seems (to adults) so separate from the things we learn that it seems inherent in having a mind. Yet over the past half century, research in child psychology has taught us to distrust such beliefs. Very young children do not find adult logic to be so self evident. On the contrary, the experiments of Jean Piaget and others have shown that our reasoning abilities evolve through various stages. Perhaps it is because we forget how hard these were to learn that they now appear so obvious. Why do we have such an amnesia about learning to reason and to remember? Perhaps because those very processes are involved in how we remember in later life. Then, naturally, it would be hard to remember what it was like to be without reason – or what it was like to learn such things. Whether we learn them or are born with them, our reasoning processes somehow become embodied in the structures of our brains. We all know how our logic can fail when the brain is deranged by exhaustion, intoxication or injury; in any case, the more complex situations get, the more we’re prone to making mistakes. If logic were somehow inherent in Mind, it would be hard to explain how things ever go wrong but this is exactly what one would expect from what happens inside any real machine.

Freedom of Will

We all believe in possessing a self from which we choose what we shall do. But this conflicts with the scientific view that all events in the universe depend on either random chance or on deterministic laws. What makes us yearn for a third alternative? There are powerful social advantages in evolving such beliefs. They support our sense of personal responsibility, and thus help us justify moral codes that maintain order among the tribe. Unless we believed in choice-making entities, nothing would bear any credit or blame. Believing in the freedom of will also brings psychological advantages; it helps us to be satisfied with our limited abilities to make predictions about ourselves – without having to take into account all the unknown details of our complex machinery. Indeed, I maintain that our decisions seem “free” at just the times at which what we do depends upon unconscious lower level processes of which our higher levels are unaware – that is, when we do not sense, inside ourselves, any details of the processes that moved us in one direction or the other. We say that this is freedom of will, yet, really, when we make such a choice, it would be better to call it an act of won’t. This is because, as I’ll argue below, it amounts to terminating thought and letting stand whatever choice the rest of the mind already has made.

To see an example of how this works, imagine choosing between two homes, one of which offers a mountain-view, while the other is closer to where you work. There is no particularly natural way to compare such unrelated things. One of the mental processes that are likely to become engaged might be constructing a sort of hallucination of living in that house, and then reacting to that imaginary episode. Another process might imagine a long drive to work, and then reacting to that. Yet one more process might then attempt to compare those two reactions by exploiting some memory traces of those simulations. How, then, might you finally decide? In one type of scenario, the comparison of the two descriptions may seem sufficiently logical or rational that the decision seems to be no mystery. In such a case we might have the sense of having found a “compelling reason”–and feel no need to regard that choice as being peculiarly free.

In another type of scenario, no such compelling reason appears. Then the process can go on to engage more and more mechanisms at increasingly lower levels, until it engages processes involving billions of brain cells. Naturally, your higher level agencies – such as those involved with verbal expressions–will know virtually nothing about such activities, except that they are consuming time. If no compelling basis emerges upon which to base a definite choice, the process might threaten to go on forever. However, that doesn’t happen in a balanced mind because there will always be other, competing demands from other agencies. Eventually some other agency will intervene – perhaps one of a supervisory character[2] whose job it is to be concerned, not with the details of what is being decided, but with some other economic aspect of the other systems’ activities. When this is what terminates the decision process, and the rest is left to adopt whichever alternative presently emerges from their interrupted activities, our higher level agencies will have no reasonable explanation of how the decision was made. In such a case, if we are compelled to explain what was done, then, by default, we usually say something like “I decided to.'[3] This, I submit, is the type of situation in which we speak of freedom of choice. But such expressions refer less to the processes which actually make our decisions than to the systems which intervene to halt those processes. Freedom of will is less to do with how we think than with how we stop thinking.

Uncertainty and Stability

What connects the mind to the world? This problem has always caused conflicts between physics, psychology, and religion. In the world of Newton’s mechanical laws, every event was entirely caused by what had happened earlier. There was simply no room for anything else. Yet common sense psychology said that events in the world were affected by minds: people could decide what occurred by using their freedom of will. Most religions concurred in this, although some preferred to believe in schemes involving divine predestination. Most theories in psychology were designed to support deterministic schemes, but those theories were usually too weak to explain enough of what happens in brains. In any case, neither physical nor psychological determinism left a place for the freedom of will.

The situation appeared to change when, early in this century, some physicists began to speculate that the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics left room for the freedom of will. What attracted those physicists to such views? As I see it, they still believed in freedom of will as well as in quantum uncertainty–and these subjects had one thing in common: they both confounded those scientists’ conceptions of causality. But I see no merit in that idea because probabilistic uncertainty offers no genuine freedom, but merely adds a capricious master to one that is based on lawful rules.

Nonetheless, quantum uncertainty does indeed play a critical role in the function of brain. However, this role is neither concerned with trans-world connections nor with freedom of will. Instead, and paradoxically, it is just those quantized atomic states that enable us to have certainty! This may surprise those who have heard that Newton’s laws were replaced by ones in which such fundamental quantities as location, speed, and even time, are separately indeterminate. But although those statements are basically right, their implications are not what they seem – but almost exactly the opposite. For it was the planetary orbits of classical mechanics that were truly undependable – whereas the atomic orbits of quantum mechanics are much more predictably reliable. To explain this, let us compare a system of planets orbiting a star, in accord with the laws of classical mechanics, with a system of electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus, in accord with quantum mechanical laws. Each consists of a central mass with a number of orbiting satellites. However, there are fundamental differences. In a solar system, each planet could be initially placed at any point, and with any speed; then those orbits would proceed to change. Each planet would continually interact with all the others by exchanging momentum. Eventually, a large planet like Jupiter might even transfer enough energy to hurl the Earth into outer space. The situation is even less stable when two such systems interact; then all the orbits will so be disturbed that even the largest of planets may leave. It is a great irony that so much chaos was inherent in the old, deterministic laws. No stable structures could have evolved from a universe in which everything was constantly perturbed by everything else. If the particles of our universe were constrained only by Newton’s laws, there could exist no well defined molecules, but only drifting, featureless clouds. Our parents would pass on no precious genes; our bodies would have no separate cells; there would not be any animals at all, with nerves, synapses, and memories.

In contrast, chemical atoms are actually extremely stable because their electrons are constrained by quantum laws to occupy only certain separate levels of energy and momentum. Consequently, except when the temperature is very high, an atomic system can retain the same state for decillions of years, with no change whatever. Furthermore, combinations of atoms can combine to form configurations, called molecules, that are also confined to have definite states. Although those systems can change suddenly and unpredictably, those events may not happen for billions of years during which there is absolutely no change at all. Our stability comes from those quantum fields, by which everything is locked into place, except during moments of clean, sudden change. It is only because of quantum laws that what we call things exist at all, or that we have genes to specify brains in which memories can be maintained – so that we can have our illusions of will.[4]


Question: Can you discuss the possible relevance of artificial intelligence in dealing with this conference?
Artificial intelligence and its predecessor, cybernetics, have given us a new view of the world in general and of machines in particular. In previous times, if someone said that a human brain is just a machine, what would that have meant to the average person? It would have seemed to imply that a person must be something like a locomotive or a typewriter. This is because, in earlier days, the word machine was applied only to things that were simple and completely comprehensible. Until the past half century – starting with the work of Kurt Goedel and Alan Turing in the 1930s and of Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts a decade later – we had never conceived of the possible ranges of computational processes. The situation is different today, not only because of those new theories, but also because we now can actually build and use machines that have thousands of millions of parts. This experience has changed our view. It is only partly that artificial intelligence has produced machines that do things that resemble thinking. It is also that we can see that our old ideas about the limitations of machines were not well founded. We have learned much more about how little we know about such matters.

I recently started to use a personal computer whose memory disk had arrived equipped with millions of words of programs and instructive text. It is not difficult to understand how the basic hardware of this computer works. But it would surely take months, and possibly years, to understand in all detail the huge mass of descriptions recorded in that memory. Every day, while I am typing instructions to this machine, screens full of unfamiliar text appear. The other day, I typed the command “Lisp Explorer”, and on the screen appeared an index to some three hundred pages of lectures about how to use, with this machine, a particular version of LISP, the computer language most used for research in artificial intelligence. The lectures were composed by a former student of mine, Patrick Winston, and I had no idea that they were in there. Suddenly there emerged, from what one might have expected to be nothing more than a reasonably simple machine, an entire heritage of records not only of a quarter century of technical work on the part of many friends and students, but also the unmistakable traces of their personalities.

In the old days, to say that a person is like a machine was like suggesting that a person is like a paper clip. Naturally it was insulting to be called any such simple thing. Today, the concept of machine no longer implies triviality. The genetic machines inside our cells contain billions of units of DNA that embody the accumulated experience of a billion years of evolutionary search. Those are systems we can respect; they are more complex than anything that anyone has ever understood. We need not lose our self-respect when someone describes us as machines; we should consider it wonderful that what we are and what we do depends upon a billion parts. As for more traditional views, I find it demeaning to be told that all the things that I can do depend on some structureless spirit or soul. It seems wrong to attribute very much to anything without enough parts. I feel the same discomfort when being told that virtues depend on the grace of some god, instead of on structures that grew from the honest work of searching, learning, and remembering. I think those tables should be turned; one ought to feel insulted when accused of being not a machine. Rather than depending upon some single, sourceless source, I much prefer the adventurous view of being made of a trillion parts–not working for some single cause, but interminably engaged in resolving old conflicts while engaging new ones. I see such conflicts in Professor Eccles’ view: in his mind are one set of ideas about the mind, and a different set of ideas that have led him to discover wonderful things about how synapses work. But he himself is still in conflict. He cannot believe that billions of cells and trillions of synapses could do enough. He wants to have yet one more part, the mind. What goodness is that extra part for? Why be so greedy that a trillion parts will not suffice? Why must there be a trillion and one?


Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind, Simon and Schuster, 1987; Heinemann & Co., 1987.
The idea of supervisory agencies is discussed in section [6.4] of [1].
In 22.7 of [1] I postulate that our brains are genetically predisposed to compel us to try to assign some cause or purpose to every change – including ones that occur inside our brains. This is because the mechanisms (called trans-frames) that are used for representing change are built automatically to assign a cause by default if no explicit one is provided.
This text is not the same as my informal talk at the conference. I revised it to be more consistent with the terminology in [1].


MINDS ARE SIMPLY WHAT BRAINS DO, Marvin Minsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Architecture of Reason – Recommended Reading

Book Review: Robert Audi, The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Audi develops analogies between theoretical and practical reason. He takes them to have a similar foundational structure based in experience. He indicates how recognition of this similarity allows insights about one sort of reason to be applied to the other sort. In particular, it becomes clear that egoism is not a reasonable account of practical reason. In addition to these main themes, Audi distinguishes and assesses various sorts of relativism about reason and develops an account of what it is to be a reasonable and rational person. There are numerous interesting points along the way, many more than can be addressed in a short review.

Audi supposes that beliefs may be (defeasibly) grounded in other beliefs or in certain foundational experiences, such as perceptual or sensory experiences, whereas desires may be grounded in other desires and beliefs or in certain foundational experiences of liked or disliked experiences. In both cases the foundations are experiences rather than beliefs about experiences. (He argues that Sellars’ attack on “the myth of the given” does not apply to his version of foundationalism.) He allows for other foundational sources of justification for beliefs in addition to sensory experience, namely, introspection, remembering (both remembering the experience and remembering that something is or was the case), and reason (or reflection or intuition).

Justified non-inferential beliefs are based on foundational sources. Justified inferential beliefs are based on justified beliefs. The same foundational structure holds for desires or wants, where intrinsic wants are analogous to non-inferential beliefs. Foundational experiences for wants are intrinsically liked or disliked because they are pleasant or unpleasant, but this does not mean, say, that wanting to swim for pleasure is wanting to swim as a means to pleasure: one envisions the pleasure as in the swimming. So wanting to swim can be an intrinsic want.

Audi distinguishes objectual wanting (wanting the pain to stop), behavioral wanting (wanting to swim), and propositional wanting (wanting there to be no more war). Wanting the pain to stop is objectual wanting (wanting this to stop) rather than propositional (wanting that I am free from the pain), so in an important sense it is not egoistic. He says that a similar point holds for belief. “Many philosophers have conflated the question of what justifies a belief with the problem of how it can be defended . . . The basis of my justification for believing that there is a tree before me is a particular visual experience . . . I am not part of the object of the experience” (102) and “selfreferential beliefs need not be taken as primary in perception” (103). We should reject epistemic egocentrism just as we reject egoism.

There is at least one disanalogy between theoretical and practical reason. Suppose that P and Q are incompatible propositions, that you have conclusive reasons to believe their disjunction, P or Q, and that your total evidence does not favor one alternative over the other. Then from the point of view of theoretical reason, it would seem you must suspend judgment and not believe one or the other. On the other hand, if A and B are incompatible courses of action (for example, representing two ways of getting to a place you need to get to), if you have conclusive reasons to take one of these courses of action, and if you have no more reason to take one rather than the other, then from the point of view of practical reason you really must decide and must not fail to make a decision. Audi notes this difference but describes it in the following way. In the practical case, you are justified in choosing course of action A and you are justified in choosing course of action B, whereas in the theoretical case you are neither justified in believing P nor justified in believing Q; however, he thinks you might be rational in believing P and rational in believing Q in the case described, which seems absolutely wrong to me.

One worry about Audi’s approach lies in the particular way in which it depends on the notion of a “ground” or “basis” of a belief or desire, whether ultimate or not. He says at one point that one’s grounds for a belief are the sorts of things that “a successful justification for it would provide” where a justification is a process of arguing for the belief by supplying premises that support the belief. But, as already mentioned, one’s ultimate grounds can include experiences, where experiences of the relevant sort are not premises and are not the sort of thing that a successful argument provides. He allows that a justificatory argument might include premises about certain experiences, but it is the experiences, not the claims about them, which are the ultimate source of justification. He allows that the current grounds of a belief need not be the original grounds. The current grounds of a belief support it in the way that pillars support a porch (where one pillar might replace another in bearing the weight). Support is a “kind of psychologically unobtrusive evidential sustenance relation.” However, we cannot identify supporting beliefs with those one would offer if asked to justify one’s belief, because “it can be difficult to tell when we are discovering a new ground . . . and when we are articulating one that was already a tacit basis of that belief.”

Sometimes a belief is “simply retained in memory” with no record of the original reasons and no new grounds. It is not completely clear to me what status Audi attributes to such a belief. Suppose the belief is not currently on one’s mind; it is just sitting there in memory. It therefore cannot be grounded in a present memory experience, because there is no such experience. Is such a belief grounded in memory simply by virtue of being retained in memory? Or is it ungrounded? Some theorists would say that the justification of such a belief depends on its earlier history. But Audi appears to accept a kind of internalism of the present moment which rules out such an appeal to history.

He does say that, “An important exception to the view that intentional actions are grounded in intrinsic desires is this. One might have forgotten why one is going into the kitchen, hence have a desire to do so that is merely non-intrinsic: neither intrinsic nor instrumental.” He calls this a “residual desire” (footnote 8, p. 246). So presumably a belief for which one has forgotten one’s reasons without having acquired any others is also ungrounded, a “residual” belief. At an earlier point Audi says, A “merely non-inferential belief will be neither justified nor capable of conferring justification on any belief grounded in it; for similar reasons I suggest that a merely noninstrumental desire will tend to be neither rational (though it need not be irrational) nor capable of conferring rationality on any desire or action grounded on it” (128).

What worries me about this is that a typical reader of this review may have a million separate beliefs—about what words mean, about the names and phone numbers of acquaintances, about historical dates and various other useful and useless facts. In relation to that vast store of beliefs, the reader’s current experiences are quite limited, including current sensory experiences, current memory experiences, experiences of introspection, and experiences of reflection and intuition. A moment’s reflection suffices to indicate that the actual experiences of the reader at this time are insufficient to serve as any sort of foundational justification of all but a few of those million beliefs.

Furthermore, it is quite possible, even likely, that almost all of those million beliefs are “simply retained in memory” with no record of the original reasons and no new grounds in relevant support relations, although Audi denies it.

Once it is clear that a belief can be inferential by virtue of standing to one or more other beliefs in the kind of psychologically unobtrusive evidential sustenance relation just illustrated, it also becomes apparent that a great many of our beliefs are inferential. They are based on one or more other, evidential beliefs of ours, as opposed to being non-inferentially grounded in a current experience or mental state or simply retained in memory (35).

As we have seen, in a typical case, a person will have a foundation of non-inferential beliefs rational on the basis of experience or reason and a vast superstructure of beliefs based on them (205).

On the contrary, this is far from “apparent”. It rests on a very strong and dubious psychological hypothesis about support relations. To be sure, people do indeed provide justifications for their beliefs when asked, but the justifications often have little to do with why they originally held the views or why they hold them now. People tend to rationalize, they fabricate reasons when asked what their reasons are. When the original reasons for belief are undermined or when actually cited reasons for belief are undermined people tend to continue believing as they do. If challenged, instead of giving up a belief, they come up with other new reasons for it (Ross and Anderson, 1982; Haidt, 2001). Audi notes that, “it is philosophically prudent to try to account for rationality without multiplying beliefs, inferences, or thought processes of any kind beyond necessity” (34). It is also philosophically prudent to avoid unnecessarily speculative psychological hypotheses!

The problem I worry about here applies to many other foundational theories and I am not what the best response to it is. Audi ought to be able to adapt that best response to the attractive theory he presents here.


Haidt, J . (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review. 108, 814-834.

Ross, Lee, and Anderson, Craig A., (1982). Shortcomings in the attribution process: on the origins and maintenance of erroneous social assessments,” in Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reviewed by Gilbert Harman, Princeton University, 2002.

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Being Sexy – Intellect, Relationships, Social Dynamics

I often shock people around me when they deliberate on issues related to social and world dynamics. I argue that the main driver of one-world dynamics is increasingly relationships and fashions (and psychological and social ramifications thereof) and not religion, abstract beliefs, ethics, or social injustice. I see the latter as effects and not as primary causes – for me there is sufficient and adequate academic research and experience to support this thesis. I argue that our evolution has greatly handicapped modern society. We have tools to excite and titillate us, we have tools to control our bodies over short time spans, and yet we have the psychology and the linguistic dexterity of our stone age ancestors. The main drivers, I submit, are not intellect and some grand world vision (perhaps they never were), but a simple issue related to being ‘sexy’ – it is the grandest accolade of the neoliberal globalised consumer society. Indeed, I see issues related to psychology of leadership in the same vain. We are given politicians and leaders not on the basis of their exceptional humanity, vision or thoughts but by the size of their purse and the image that their parasitic spin-doctors can create for them. We have already elaborated on this research in previous articles, and no doubt we’ll return to this topic again. For the purpose of this post, I’ll reproduce some recent articles written with a feminism perspective, that I think touch on related issues.


Feminine intellect vs. ‘slut chic’  (Dotty Burns)

“I think; therefore I am.” Profound philosophical statements such as this are not the kind of things that are coming out of the mouths of American female icons these days. Objects of popular admiration such as Paris Hilton or Jessica Simpson are more likely to quote a child’s cartoon character. Based upon my observation, the raunch-culture that these two celebrities represent has become increasingly appealing to an absurd degree.

Every time I catch a glimpse of MTV or open the latest issue of Marie Claire, I become immediately overwhelmed with an array of pop-tarts and ebullient models whose careers are based on the exploitation of their bodies as well as their stupidity.

Not every aspect of popular culture that is intended to appeal to women nowadays is anti-intellectual, but the onrush of superficial celebrities who represent nothing but vulgar materialism has increased to a sickening extreme. As a woman in her early 20s, I am appalled that senseless trends and unscrupulous women appeal to the age group I associate myself with.

This is not the testimony of a radical feminist; although, I do believe in protesting against the tactless pop-tarts that adorn the covers of most contemporary magazines, I embrace femininity as much as any other all-American girl. The bulging cosmetic purse in my backpack, and the back-issues of Vogue in my bookcase are not the normal archetypes associated with your average femi-Nazi. I do not necessarily believe in the common gender ideology of feminism. I simply wish to uphold the intellectual liberation aspect of feminism.

Having attended a modern-day beauty school where I acquired an education in “slut chic” rather than in actual cosmetology as I had originally intended I cannot emphasize enough the importance of feminine intellectualism.

I spent day after tedious day trimming the gray manes of nagging housewives, and applying gobs of stark-bright colors to the faces of classmates whose daily conversation couldn’t extend beyond that of their insane vanity or their moronic sexual indiscretions. I found myself lost in a superficial and meaningless existence.

Of course, upon joining the institution, I did not possess extreme notions about beauty culture that is essentially a prequisite of a college of cosmetology. As a naive 18-year-old girl who has always adamantly subscribed to beauty trends, I eagerly entered the school with the intention of using the vocational training to fund my ultimate goal of earning a college degree. However, the whole endeavor was such a disappointment that I couldn’t imagine working in the industry even though I had already graduated. I became so disillusioned about the beauty industry that I began to see working as a cosmetologist as emotionally damaging as selling my body on the street.

According to writer Betty Freidan, who wrote the pro-feminist novel “The Feminine Mystique,” women are suffering from a type of epidemic. Freidan’s theory, aptly titled ” the problem that has no name,” dictates that because of the idealized image of women, as well as other contributing factors, women are prisoners of their own minds.

Freidan’s observations have allowed me to realize that there is a movement against the mind-set and culture that is defining every modern woman.

We’ll leave the asylum of beauty that I attended to house the absolute conformist of the superficial lifestyle. In the meantime, I am abhorred to see ideals of a thoughtless raunch-culture infesting regions of mainstream culture and society.


Intellect, talent and character? Young women these days just aspire to be ‘sexy’,  Rosie Boycott (Daily Mail)

Being “sexy” has become the most important accolade a teenager can aspire to, outdoing intelligence, success at school and character. This, at least, is the view of American author Carol Liebau, whose new book Prude: How The Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls has just been published in Britain.
Liebau brings heavyweight credentials to her mission. She’s the first female editor of the Harvard Law Review, and as such, she’s cracked another glass ceiling on the road to female equality. She also happens to be incredibly attractive into the bargain: this is no old-fashioned blue stocking attacking a generation out of envy for a life which had passed her by. Her book, I believe, is a timely wakeup call to us all. “Girls are being led to believe that they’re in control when it comes to sexual relationships,” Liebau says.
“But they’re actually living in a profoundly anti-feminist landscape where girls compete for attention on the basis of how much they’re prepared to do sexually for boys.”

Even much of the so-called “good” advice aimed at girls is bad, insists Liebau. Sexual education in schools starts with the assumption that all teenagers are having sex, and does little to encourage abstinence. She goes on to quote Sharon Stone and some of the most laughably bad advice ever given to teenagers. Stone, it appears, encourages teenagers who feel pressured to have sex to offer oral sex instead, since it’s safer. “Young people talk to me about what to do if they’re being pressed for sex,” she says. “I tell them what I believe . . . if you’re in a situation where you cannot get out of sex, offer oral sex.”
But it is not just Stone who dishes out bad advice. Liebau also blames celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears for the phenomenon.

Looking at Hilton’s websites, which feature films and photographs of her in provocative and dominant poses, the message she sends out is clear: Young women are being taught to believe that “sexy” equates to empowerment and that only through promiscuity and sexual aggression will they achieve their peers’ admiration.
Dr Michele Elliott, director of the children’s charity Kidscape, told me that what is going on is rushing the sexual development of children to the point where it is dangerous. “Girls as young as five or six are wearing thongs that say ‘Eye Candy’ and T- shirts which say ‘So many boys, so little time’,” she says. “You can buy pole-dancing kits for kids, and I’ve known parents who take their children to beauty salons for make- overs.”Children are told about looking stylish on a first date, or given advice about diets. We’re raising a generation who believe this is what they should be aspiring to.”

Two years ago, I made a documentary about women and age, in which I spoke to women in their 50s who were being made redundant from their jobs. The same wasn’t happening to men of equivalent age and status. Their problems stemmed from fading looks in a culture which all too often prizes beauty above ability. It was depressing, but not as bad as an interview I also conducted with a group of pretty 11-year-olds in West London. They all wore make-up and trendy clothes and said they’d be happy to have plastic surgery. It was, they said, more important to them to be good looking than it was to be clever, helpful or talented. Looks, they believed, were the passport to success. They all spoke of having boyfriends, and their nods, winks and giggles indicated to me that while they might not yet be having full-blown sex, this was certainly not long in the future.

Carol Liebau believes this sudden drop in the age at which girls have sex is the most noteworthy aspect of the sexual revolution. She quotes a report at San Diego University that analysed 530 studies of sexual behaviour spanning five decades and involved 250,000 young people. From 1943 to 1999 the average age of girls losing their virginity dropped from 19 to 15. During the same period, the number of sexually active women under the age of 20 rose from 13 per cent to 47 per cent. And between 1969 and 1993, the percentage of female teenagers and young adults having oral sex skyrocketed from 42 to 71 per cent.

But perhaps the most dramatic phenomenon was the revolution in young women’s beliefs about pre-marital sex. Only 12 per cent approved of it in 1943. By 1999, 73 per cent did. Liebau notes: “Baby-boomers first had sex when they were in college. Today’s young women lose their virginity when they’re still at school.” And it’s not only an American problem. A recent Unicef survey of 21 countries found that British children were most likely to have had sex before the age of 15. Sexually transmitted infections in Britain have risen by 63 per cent in a decade, with HIV and gonorrhoea close to record levels. “There exists a status quo in which almost everything seems focused on what’s going on below the waist,” argues Liebau.

Typing the word sexy into Google, I found a staggering 22,800,000 entries versus just over 4,000,000 for the word clever. Clothes are marketed to make you look “sexy”; food is “sexy”, as are cars, cameras, and certain kinds of table lamps.
Even Gordon Brown is not immune. On June 15, 2004, the BBC business programme heralded his achievement of becoming the UK’s longest continuously serving Chancellor with the words: “But never mind that: he’s a brooding malcontent who oozes sex appeal.” Checking further into our politicians revealed that “sex and David Cameron” yielded 458,000 entries. From all of this, just one message emerges. Sex is everywhere. Everyone is doing it. That’s the way it is.
Sex has become just another commodity, something to drop into your day between a visit to the manicurist or a trip to the supermarket. The very real psychological, emotional and physical impact on young girls of having too much too soon is being ignored.
By relentlessly emphasising sex and beauty, the standards by which young women have traditionally been valued – their character, intellect or skills – are being eroded. Our increasingly sexual society also affects the way young girls look at being mothers. Of course, unwed mothers were treated deplorably in the past, but today’s almost universal acceptance of pre-marital sex has effectively sanctioned a life-changing decision that can have a severely detrimental impact on a young unwed mother and her child.

The psychological and spiritual costs to young girls living in a sex-saturated society can’t be calculated in physical or economic terms alone. Giving “too much, too soon” has been associated with an increased risk of suicide and a much greater incidence of depression. How ironic that in so many other ways young women have never had it so good. Their professional options are virtually limitless. There are more female medical and law students than male ones. In school, girls out-perform boys. They start reading earlier.
They live longer, are less likely to commit crimes or become victims of them. Even that last bastion, pay scales, was toppled earlier this year when a survey from the private banking group Investec revealed that 39 per cent of women who work full-time and have partners believe that they earn more than their men. Translated into numbers, that means that 1.8 million women in full-time work across the country earn more than their partners.

But as barriers to female professional advancement have fallen, so too have many of the traditional social conventions that protected girls. When I was a teenager (and indeed, until I was in my late 20s) if a boyfriend came to stay at my parents’ house, he always had to sleep in the spare room.Too many of us, it seems, have forgotten that those well-worn customs (requiring a boy to meet a girl’s parents before a first date, for example) are, in fact, a way of protecting a daughter and being actively involved in her development.

From the boy’s side, turning up in the living room to meet the parents – however embarrassing – signaled a readiness to assume responsibility for the daughter of the house. Such customs sent out signals not only of sexual restraint, but also of a proper respect for women. Many of the customs that today are dismissed as limiting and restrictive were actually very empowering, because they offered women a way to resist unwelcome sexual advances (“I can’t – my parents expect me home by midnight”) without having to look prudish or frigid. Nowadays, girls who resist a boy’s advances are no longer backed up by a social consensus which honours their right to say “no”, their right to be chaste.

Parents themselves have fallen foul of the fashion which seems to dictate that everyone should be allowed to do what they want, when they want. And, as a result, everything around today’s young girls conspires to push them towards sex, sending the implacable message that the sexually inexperienced are uncool, abnormal or hopelessly undesirable.
And as society has changed, so too have role models. Where once younger people looked up to leaders in their communities for their inspiration, now they look to celebrities such as Paris Hilton and take their cues from her and her like.

Since Paris’s main message seems to be one of “just do it”, those who don’t want to are inevitably left looking hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society. And what this has created, it seems to me, is a world where men are freely able to exploit women and get away with it.Take the current crop of teenage men’s magazines: most are openly hostile to women, seeing them as nothing more than sex objects for the delight of macho men.
Yet women willingly send in their (half-naked) photos to be pored over by thousands of insecure young men who are only too anxious to return to a world where men did rule the roost and women were merely chattels.Thirty five years ago, when I co-founded Spare Rib – one of the earliest feminist magazines – the debate about female sexuality was one of the trickiest the feminists encountered. Like my co-founder, Marsha Rowe, I’d been working on an underground magazine at the end of the 1960s. The underground Press had an ambivalent attitude towards women. To refuse to sleep with someone was both old-fashioned and hypocritical in a culture which promoted free love. Marsha and I both felt uncomfortable. How could real liberation – the right to work, to achieve, to earn the same as men – be equated with having to have sex with someone you didn’t necessarily love? It didn’t. And that conviction was one of the impetuses which kicked the magazine into life. The same is true today, where overtly raunchy sex is the new chic among today’s teenagers, seen as a further step along the road to liberation.
Sexuality is a wonderful part of being human, but it is one that should not be treated lightly, or as a commodity devoid of emotional power. It’s high time that grown-ups started taking an interest in what their children get up to: benign neglect may be considered a “liberated” way to rear our children, but in the end it is our daughters who will pay the price.


Evolution of Love

continued from yesterday

Our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees, lack exclusive sexual bonds. Most mating takes place within the narrow window of female estrus. When a female chimpanzee is in heat, a variety of physiological changes take place. Her genitals become swollen and pink for four to six days. The swellings peak just before ovulation when she is most likely to conceive. She emits pheromonal signals, hormone-saturated substances that males find especially attractive, sometimes driving them into a sexual frenzy. Sarah Hrdy of the University of California at Davis notes that males sometimes touch the vagina of the estrous female, gathering her secretions on their fingers to smell or taste. Males use these signals to monitor the female’s reproductive state.

A male chimpanzee’s position in the social hierarchy strongly determines his sexual access to estrous females. Among the chimpanzees at a large zoo colony in Arnham, the Netherlands, for example, the dominant male achieves as many as 75 percent of the matings with estrous females. The relationships between male and female chimps are complex and can extend over time, but chimps do not form the long-term committed relationships that most humans desire.

Men and women have always depended on each other for survival and reproduction. Love was not invented a few hundred years ago by European poets, contrary to conventional wisdom in this century. Love is a human universal, occurring in societies ranging from the !Kung San of Botswana to the Ache of Paraguay. In my study of 10,041 individuals from 37 different cultures, men and women rated love as the single most important quality in selecting a spouse. Across the globe, people sing love songs and pine for lost lovers. They elope with loved ones against the wishes of parents. They recount personal tales of anguish, longing, and unrequited love. And they narrate great love stories of romantic entanglements down through the generations. The German writer Herman Hesse summed it up best: Life is “the struggle for position and the search for love.” Love is the universal human emotion that bonds the sexes, the evolutionary meeting ground where men and women lay down their arms.

The universal existence of love, however, poses a puzzle. From an evolutionary perspective, no single decision is more important than the choice of a mate. That single fork in the road determines one’s ultimate reproductive fate. More than in any other domain, therefore, we expect evolution to produce supremely rational mechanisms of mate choice, rational in the sense that they lead to wise decisions rather than impetuous mistakes. How could a blind passion like love — a form of dementia that consumes the mind, crowds out all other thoughts, creates emotional dependency, and produces a delusional idealization of a partner — possibly evolve to solve a problem that might be better solved by cool rationality?

To penetrate this mystery, we must start with the scientific evidence for mate preferences. Worldwide, from the coastal dwelling Australians to the South African Zulu, women desire qualities such as ambition, industriousness, intelligence, dependability, creativity, exciting personality, and sense of humor — characteristics that augur well for a man’s success in acquiring resources and achieving status. Given the tremendous investment women undertake to produce a single child, the nine months of costly internal fertilization and gestation, it is perfectly reasonable for women to want men who can invest in return. A woman’s children will survive and thrive better if she selects a resourceful man. Children suffer when their mothers choose “slackers.” Men, in contrast, place a greater premium on qualities linked with fertility, such as a woman’s youth, health, and physical appearance — clear skin, smooth skin, bright eyes, full lips, symmetrical features, and a slim waist. These preferences are also perfectly sensible. We descended from ancestral mothers and fathers who chose fertile and resourceful partners. Those who failed to choose on these bases risked reproductive oblivion.

Although these rational desires set minimum thresholds on who qualifies as an acceptable mate, rationality profoundly fails to predict the final choice of a mate. As the psychologist Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology observes, “Murmuring that your lover’s looks, earning power, and IQ meet your minimal standards would probably kill the romantic mood, even if statistically true. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the opposite — that you’re in love because you can’t help it.”

One key to the mystery of love is found in the psychology of commitment. If a partner chooses you for rational reasons, he or she might leave you for the same rational reasons: finding someone slightly more desirable on all of the “rational” criteria. But if the person is blinded by an uncontrollable love that cannot be helped and cannot be chosen, a love for only you and no other, then commitment will not waver when you are in sickness rather than in health, when you are poorer rather than richer. Love overrides rationality. It’s the emotion that ensures that you won’t leave when someone slightly more desirable comes along or when a perfect “10” moves in next door. It ensures that a partner will stick by you through the struggles of survival and the hazards of childbirth.

Love, however, has a tragic side. The stories of great lovers of the past, in fiction and in history, are often marked by disaster. Juliet died of poison. Romeo chose to kill himself rather than live without her. Love suicides have pervaded Japanese culture for centuries, a final vindication of the intensity of a person’s commitment. When parents and society conspire to keep lovers apart, lovers sometimes tie themselves together and jump off a cliff or hurl themselves into a well. The most perilous side of love, however, comes not from a folie à deux, but from a folie à un — the demonic possession that consumes a person when love is not reciprocated. Unrequited love is the foundation for fatal attraction.

Consider the case of John W. Hinckley, Jr., who scrawled a final letter to the actress Jodie Foster on March 30, 1981, shortly before attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan:



Dear Jodie:      

There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason I am writing you this letter now.

As you well know by now I love you very much. Over the past seven months I’ve left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me…I know the many messages left at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt that it was the most painless way for me to express my love for you…

Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you…I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am doing this for your sake! By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historic deed, to gain your respect and love.

I love you forever.

John Hinckley


Cases as extreme as John Hinckley are rare, but the experience of unrequited love is quite common. In one recent survey, 95 percent of men and women indicated that, by the age of 25, they had experienced unrequited love at least once, either as a would-be lover whose passions were rejected or as the object of someone’s unwanted desires. Only one person in 20 has never experienced unrequited love of any kind.      

Although unrequited love is a perilous passion, producing fatal attractions and unwanted stalking, the dogged persistence it produces sometimes pays off. One of the great love stories in history is that of Nicholas and Alexandra. Nicholas inherited the Russian throne at the end of the 19th century. During his adolescence his parents started looking for a suitable mate for him. At age 16, contrary to his parent’s wishes, he became obsessed with Alexandra, a beautiful princess then living in England with her grandmother, Queen Victoria. Despite parental objections, cultural chasms, and a separation spanning thousands of miles, Nicholas was determined to capture Alexandra’s love. Alexandra, however, found him a bit dull and did not relish the thought of moving to the harsh climate of Moscow. She spurned his advances. In 1892, Nicholas turned 24 and, having loved Alexandra for nearly eight years, resolved to make one final effort to win her heart. Given this state of mind, he was devastated when she wrote saying that she had definitely decided not to wed him. She asked him not to contact her again. All seemed lost.

Nicholas left his beloved Moscow immediately. He traveled across Europe, suffering rough terrain and treacherous weather in the journey to London. Although exhausted from travel, Nicholas immediately began to persue Alexandra with great passion. After two months, she finally relented and agreed to marry him. The young couple thus became man and wife, rulers of the Russian empire.

Although Nicholas’s love was initially unrequited, their marriage proved a joyful one. Diary entries from each revealed sublime happiness, the great joy of their union, and the depth of their love for each other. They produced five children. Nicholas so enjoyed spending time with Alexandra and their children that the Russian empire apparently suffered from his neglect. When forced to be apart, they pined for each other, wrote often, and endured great psychological pain until their reunions. Their mutual love lasted throughout their lives, until the Russian Revolution brought down the czarist rule and they were executed. They died on the same day, their lifelong love never having diminished. Had Nicholas given up when initially spurned, their great love would have been lost forever.

The same passion that led John Hinckley to pursue Jodie Foster with desperate measures led Nicholas to succeed in turning an unrequited obsession into lifelong love. In retrospect, one seems irrational and unbalanced, the other logical and normal. One we call pathological, the other a love story. But what if Hinckley had succeeded in winning Jodie Foster’s love and Nicholas had failed in his quest for Alexandra? Love is a dangerous passion that cuts both ways. There’s a rationality to the irrationality.

Once humans evolved love, the bonds they created required protection. It would be extraordinarily unlikely that evolution would fail to defend these fragile and fruitful unions against interlopers. In the insect world, there is a species known as the “lovebug.” Male lovebugs venture out in a swarm of other males each morning in search of a chance to mate with a female. When one succeeds, the couple departs from the swarm and glides to the ground to copulate. Because other males sometimes attempt to copulate with her, even after the pair has begun mating, the couple maintains a continuous copulatory embrace for as long as three days, hence the nickname “the lovebug.” This strategy guards the union against outside intruders.

In humans, guarding a bond must last more than days, months, or even years because love can last a lifetime. The dangerous emotion of jealousy evolved to fill this void. Love and jealousy are intertwined passions. They depend on each other and feed on each other. But just as the prolonged embrace of the lovebug tells us that their bonds can be threatened, the power of jealousy reveals the ever-present possibility that our love bonds can be broken. The centrality of jealousy in human love reveals a hidden side of our desires, one that we typically go to great lengths to conceal — a passion for other partners.

Hidden Desires



One Sunday morning William burst into the living room and said, “Dad! Mom! I have some great news for you! I’m getting married to the most beautiful girl in town. She lives a block away and her name is Susan.” After dinner, William’s dad took him aside. “Son, I have to talk with you. Your mother and I have been married 30 years. She’s a wonderful wife, but has never offered much excitement in the bedroom, so I used to fool around with women a lot. Susan is actually your half-sister, and I’m afraid you can’t marry her.”      

William was heartbroken. After eight months he eventually started dating again. A year later he came home and proudly announced, “Dianne said yes! We’re getting married in June.” Again, his father insisted on a private conversation and broke the sad news. “Dianne is your half-sister too, William. I’m awfully sorry about this.”

William was furious. He finally decided to go to his mother with the news. “Dad has done so much harm. I guess I’m never going to get married,” he complained. “Every time I fall in love, Dad tells me the girl is my half-sister.”

His mother just shook her head. “Don’t pay any attention to what he says, dear. He’s not really your father.”



We find this story funny not simply because the ending carries a surprise. It’s amusing because the mother ultimately gets payback for the “father’s” philandering. Cuckolds are universal objects of laughter and derision, and a constant source of engaging tales from the tragedy of William Shakespeare’s Othello to the middle-class marital dramas portrayed in the novels of John Updike.      

To understand the origins of sexual passion we must introduce a disturbing difference between the sexes. Everyday observation tells us that men are more promiscuously inclined than women. “Men found to desire more sex partners than women desire” would be no more likely to make the headlines than “Dog bites man.” But scientific verification is always useful, since common sense, which tells us that the earth is flat, sometimes turns out to be wrong. Science, in this case, has verified the everyday knowledge that men do display a greater passion for playing around. In one of our recent studies of more than 1,000 men and women, men reported desiring eight sex partners over the next three years, whereas women reported desiring only one or two. In another study, men were four times more likely than women to say that they have imagined having sex with 1,000 or more partners.

Observing that men and women differ, however, is not the same as explaining why they differ. There are compelling evolutionary reasons for the fact that this difference in desire for sexual variety is universal, found not just in cultures saturated with media images of seductive models, not just among Hugh Hefner’s generation of Playboy readers, and not just in studies conducted by male scientists. To explain this desire, we must introduce another key fact about human reproductive biology.

To produce a single child, women bear the burdens and pleasures of nine months of pregnancy — an obligatory form of parental investment that men cannot share. Men, to produce the same child, need only devote a few hours, a few minutes, or even a few seconds. Wide is the gulf between men and women in the effort needed to bring forth new life. Over time, therefore, a strategy of casual mating proved to be more reproductively successful for men than for women. Men who succeeded in the arms of many women out-reproduced men who succeeded with fewer. An ancestral woman, in contrast, could have had sex with hundreds of partners in the course of a single year and still have produced only a single child. Unless a woman’s regular partner proved to be infertile, additional sex partners did not translate into additional children. As a consequence, men evolved a more powerful craving for sex with a variety of women.

This sex difference in desire creates an intriguing puzzle. Sexual encounters require two people. Mathematically, the number of heterosexual encounters must be identical for the sexes. Men cannot satisfy their lust for sex partners without willing women. Indeed, men’s passion for multiple partners could never have evolved unless there were some women who shared that desire. Is casual sex a recent phenomenon, perhaps created by the widespread prevalence of birth control devices that liberated women from the previous risks of pregnancy? Or did ancestral women do it too?

Three scientific clues, when taken together, provide a compelling answer. Men’s sexual jealousy provides the first clue, the ominous passion that led us to this mystery. If ancestral women were naturally inclined to be flawlessly faithful, men would have had no evolutionary catalyst for jealousy. Men’s jealousy is an evolutionary response to something alarming: the threat of a loved one’s infidelity. The intensity of men’s jealousy provides a psychological clue that betrays women’s desire for men other than their regular partners.

Second, affairs are known in all cultures, including tribal societies, pointing to the universal prevalence of infidelity. Prevalence rates vary from culture to culture (high in Sweden and low in China), but affairs occur everywhere. Sexual infidelity causes divorce worldwide more than any other marital violation, being closely rivaled only by the infertility of the union. The fact that women have affairs in cultures from the Tiwi of northern Australia to the suburbs of Los Angeles reveals that some women refuse to limit themselves to a single partner despite men’s attempts to control them and despite the risk of divorce if discovered.

A third line of evidence comes from new research on human sperm competition. Sperm competition occurs when the sperm from two different men inhabit a woman’s reproductive tract at the same time. Human sperm remain viable within the woman’s tract for up to seven days, not merely one or two days as scientists previously believed. Indeed, my colleagues have discovered hundreds of “crypts” recessed within the vaginal walls of women in which they store a man’s sperm and then release it several days later to enter a marathon race to her egg. If a woman has sex with two men within the course of a week, sperm competition can ensue, as the sperm from different men scramble and battle for the prize of fertilizing the egg. Research on sperm competition reveals that men’s sperm volume, relative to their body weight, is twice that which occurs in primate species known to be monogamous, a clue that hints at a long evolutionary history of human sperm competition.

Human sperm, moreover, come in different “morphs,” or shapes, designed for different functions. Most common are the “egg getters,” the standard government-issue sperm with conical heads and sinewy tails designed for swimming speed — the Mark Spitzes of the sperm world. But a substantial minority of sperm have coiled tails. These so-called kamikaze sperm are poorly designed for swimming speed. But that’s not their function. When the sperm from two different men are mixed in the laboratory, kamikaze sperm wrap themselves around the egg getters and destroy them, committing suicide in the process. These physiological clues reveal a long evolutionary history in which men battled with other men, literally within the woman’s reproductive tract, for access to the vital egg needed for transporting their genes into the next generation. Without a long history of sperm competition, evolution would have favored neither the magnitude of human sperm volume nor the specialized sperm shapes designed for battle.

All these clues — the universality of infidelity, men’s sexual jealousy, and the hallmarks of sperm competition — point to a disturbing answer to the question of ancestral women’s sexual strategies. They reveal the persistent expression of women’s passion for men other than their husbands, a phenomenon that must have occurred repeatedly over the long course of human evolution. Modern women have inherited this passion from their ancestral mothers.

Why Women Have Affairs

Because scientists have focused primarily on the obvious reproductive benefits of men’s desire for sexual variety, the potential benefits to women of short-term sexual passion languished for years unstudied. The puzzle is compounded by the fact that a woman’s infatuation with another man comes laden with danger. An unfaithful woman, if discovered, risks damage to her social reputation, the loss of her partner’s commitment, physical injury, and occasionally death at the hands of a jealous man. Undoubtedly, many women weigh these risks, and choose not to act on their sexual desires. The benefits to women who do act on their passion for other men, given the possibility of catastrophic costs, must be perceived as sufficiently great to make it worth the risk.

For the past seven years, Heidi Greiling and I have been studying why women have affairs. Our lab has focused on the benefits that are so alluring that women from all walks of life are willing to take great risks to pursue sex and love outside of marriage. Our research centered on three questions: What benefits do women reap from affairs? What circumstances are most likely to drive a woman into another man’s arms? And which women are most prone to affairs?

Historically, women may have benefited from an affair in countless ways. The first and most obvious benefit comes from the direct resources that an affair partner may provide. A few expensive dinners may not seem like much today, but an extra supply of meat from the hunt would have made the difference between starving and surviving during ancestral winters when the land lay bare, or between merely surviving and robustly thriving during more plentiful times.

Women also can benefit from affairs in the currency of quality genes. The puzzle of the peacock’s tail provided the telltale clue to this benefit. A peahen’s preference for peacocks with brilliant plumage may signal selection for genes for good health. When peacocks carry a high load of parasites, their diminished health is revealed in duller displays. By selecting for luminescence, peahens secure good genes for health that benefit their offspring. Research by Steve Gangestad and Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico reveals that women may be choosing affair partners with especially healthy genes. Women who have sex with different men can also produce more genetically diverse children, providing a sort of “hedge” against environmental change.

Although genetic and resource benefits may flow to women who express their hidden sexual side, our studies uncovered one benefit that overshadowed the others in importance, a benefit we call “mate insurance.” During ancestral times, disease, warfare, and food shortages made survival a precarious proposition. The odds were not trivial that a husband would succumb to a disease, become debilitated by a parasite, or incur injury during a risky hunt or a tribal battle. The paleontological and cross-cultural records reveal this clue — the skulls and skeletons show injuries mostly on males. A woman’s husband, in short, stood a significant chance of suffering a debilitating or lethal wound.

Ancestral women who failed to have mate insurance, a backup replacement in the event that something happened to her regular partner, would have suffered greatly compared to women who cultivated potential replacements. Modern women have inherited the desires of their ancestral mothers for replacement mates. In the words of one woman in our study, “Men are like soup — you always want to have one on the back burner.” Mate insurance provides a safeguard against reasonable risks of losing a partner.

And mate insurance remains relevant today, even though we’ve conquered many of the hazards that felled our forebears. American divorce rates now approach 67 percent for those currently getting married, up from the mere 50 percent figure that alarmed many over the past two decades. Remarriage is rapidly becoming the norm. The Dangerous Passion explores how women’s desire for additional partners is ancestral wisdom that, however alarming to husbands, continues to serve a critical insurance function for women today.

Urges of Ovulation

Women’s attraction to lovers has another mysterious ingredient: the puzzle of concealed ovulation. Unlike chimpanzees, women’s genitals do not become engorged when they ovulate. Women have “lost estrus” and engage in sex throughout their ovulatory cycle. Conventional scientific wisdom has declared that a woman’s ovulation is cryptic, concealed even from the woman herself. But have the urges associated with ovulation totally vanished?

In the most extensive study of ovulation and women’s sexuality, several thousand married women were asked to record their sexual desires every day for a period of twenty-four months. The methods were crude but straightforward: women simply placed an X on the recording sheet on each day that they experienced sexual desire. Basal body temperature was recorded to determine the phase of the menstrual cycle. These thousands of data points yielded a startling pattern. On the first day of a woman’s period, practically no women reported experiencing sexual desire. The numbers rose dramatically across the ovarian cycle, peaking precisely at the point of maximum fertility, and then declining rapidly during the luteal phase after ovulation. Women, of course, can experience sexual desire at any phase of their cycle. Nonetheless, they are five times more likely to experience sexual desire when they are ovulating than when they are not.

Women sometimes act on their passions. A recent survey of 1,152 women, many of whom were having affairs, revealed a startling finding. Women who stray tend to time their sexual liaisons with their affair partners to coincide with the peak of their sexual desire, when they are most likely to conceive. Sex with husbands, in sharp contrast, is more likely to occur when women are not ovulating, a strategy that may be aimed at keeping a man rather than conceiving with him. None of this is conscious, of course. Women do not think “I’ll try to time sex with my affair partner when I’m ovulating so that I’ll bear his child and not my husband’s.” Psychologically, women simply experience sexual desire more when they are ovulating, and if they have an affair partner, have urges to have sex with him during this phase. Ovulation may seem concealed to outside observers, but women appear to act on the impulses that spring from it. And when that desire for men other than their husbands occurs, it’s difficult for most men to tell when their mates are straying or may be likely to stray. I call this the signal detection problem.

The Signal Detection Problem

Across cultures, people have affairs that are specifically designed to avoid detection. In Arizona, one motel marquee boasts that it is the “No-Tell Motel.” In states across America, you can rent some hotel rooms at an hourly rate. The woman returning from a business trip does not make her brief fling on the road the first topic of conversation. The husband who conceals his finances from his wife may be funneling resources to support a mistress on the side.

Spouses experience a signal detection problem. Consider camping in the woods at night and hearing a sound somewhere in the dark. Was that the sound of a twig snapping, merely the wind blowing, or the unfamiliar night sounds playing tricks on your ears? Assuming that you have correctly detected the signal as a twig snap, the possible causes of this event are many, but they are not infinite. It could be a rock that somehow got dislodged. But it could also be a dangerous animal or a hostile human. The signal detection problem is not merely about picking up accurate signals in the face of an uncertain and ambiguous welter of information. It is also about making correct inferences about the cause of the signal.

Since sexual infidelities are almost invariably secret, the signals they might emit are intentionally muted. An unfamiliar scent, the purchase of a sharp new jacket, the running of a yellow light, a new interest in Beethoven or the Beastie Boys, an unexplained absence — all of these can be signals, but they can originate from many causes other than infidelity. The jealous person experiences an elevated sensitivity to signals of infidelity: “He may see a red flush on his wife’s cheek, she may appear to be standing awkwardly, or sitting sideways on a chair, she has put on a clean dress, there is a cigarette-end in the fireplace…the jealous man sees a handkerchief on the floor, a wet cloth in the bathroom, newspapers in a ditch, and attaches to all the same import.”

Consider the case of a European psychiatrist who counseled many couples referred to him in which one of the spouses experienced “morbid jealousy.” Most cases were husbands who had delusions that their wives were sexually unfaithful, and these delusions destroyed the fabric of trust required for harmonious marriage. Because he believed that extreme jealousy was a psychiatric illness that could not be cured, his most common recommendation was that the couples separate or divorce. Many couples followed his recommendations. Because he was keenly interested in the subsequent fate of his patients, he routinely contacted them after a number of months had passed. To his astonishment, he discovered that many of the wives of his patients had subsequently become sexually involved with the very men about whom their husbands had been jealous! Some of these women actually married the men who were the objects of their husbands’ suspicions. In many cases, the husbands must have been sensing signs of infidelity. But because the wives proclaimed innocence and declared that their husbands’ jealousy was irrational, the husbands ended up believing that the problem was in their heads. The problem of signal detection is how to identify and correctly interpret a partner’s betrayal in an uncertain social world containing a chaos of conflicting clues.

Jealousy is often triggered by circumstances that signal a real threat to a relationship, such as differences in the desirability of the partners, as illustrated by the following case. The man was 35 years old, working as a foreman, when he was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with “morbid jealousy.” He had married at age 20 to a woman of 16 whom he deeply loved. During their first two years of marriage, he was stationed in military service in England. During this two-year separation, he received several anonymous letters saying that his wife was carrying on an affair. When he returned to America to rejoin her, he questioned her intensely about the allegations, but she denied them. Their own sexual relations proved disappointing. He became obsessed with the earlier time in their marriage, repeatedly accused his wife of infidelity, and hit her from time to time, especially after a bout of drinking. He tried to strangle her twice, and several times he threatened to kill himself.

He openly admitted his problems to the psychiatrist: “I’m so jealous that when I see anyone near her I want to hurt her. I have always loved her but do not think she has returned my affection. This jealousy is something I feel in my stomach and when it comes out of me there is nothing I can do about it. That is why I behave so madly….My wife is always telling me that other men are stronger and can beat me….I’m not a big chap or a handsome chap but my wife is so pretty and I don’t think I come up to her high standards.” In other words, he perceived a difference in their level of desirability; she was attractive and alluring, and he saw himself as beneath her. When the psychiatrist questioned the wife in private, she admitted to meeting and having an affair with a married man. The affair was carried on in secret, and throughout the duration of her affair she insisted that her husband’s jealousy was delusional. The affair began roughly one year before the husband was referred to the psychiatrist to treat “his problem.”

Differences in desirability — when an “8” is married to a “10” — can heighten sensitivity to signals of infidelity in the partner who has fewer outside mating options. Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues at the University of Hawaii discovered that the more desirable partner in the couple in fact is more likely to stray. Those who have been in relationships with both more attractive and less attractive partners have an acute awareness of how jealousy is attuned to these differences. These differences represent one among many signs of actual or impending infidelity explored in depth later in the book.

Emotional Wisdom

Jealousy is necessary because of the real threat of sexual treachery. In a hazardous world where rivals lurk, partners harbor passions for other people, and infidelity threatens to destroy what could have been a lifelong love, it would be surprising if evolution had not forged elaborate defenses to detect and fend off these threats. Exposing these threats, and the psycho-logical arms we have to combat them, is a first step toward comprehending the wisdom of passions that sometimes seem so destructive.

The Dangerous Passion takes us on a journey through the rationality of these seemingly irrational emotions, examining the fundamental desires of what men and women want, and why these longings so often produce conflict.

Chapter 2 introduces the jealousy paradox — why an emotion that evolved to protect love can rip a relationship apart. It explores the evolution of conflict between men and women, why painful emotions are necessary in resolving conflicts, and why men and women are locked in a never-ending spiral of love and strife.

Chapter 3 focuses on why men and women differ in their underlying psychology of jealousy. It reveals that men and women are neither unisex equivalents nor aliens from different planets. When it comes to adaptive problems that differ for men and women, passions diverge; for adaptive problems that are the same, their emotions joyfully commingle.

Chapter 4, “The Othello Syndrome,” investigates seemingly bizarre clinical cases in which a jealous person becomes untethered, resulting in delusional suspicions about a partner’s infidelity. We explore why our minds are designed not merely to pick up on infidelities that have already occurred, but also to detect circumstances that signal an increased likelihood that a partner will stray in the future.

Chapter 5 delves into the frightening abuses produced by the dangerous passion — battering, stalking, and killing — and identifies when women are most vulnerable to these violations.Although I call jealousy the dangerous passion, it cannot be disentangled from the risky cravings that men and women harbor for other lovers.

Chapter 6 examines the qualities of relationships that make a person susceptible to infidelity, the personality characteristics that predict who’s likely to cheat, and why some people unwittingly drive their partners into the arms of a paramour.

Chapter 7 explores why women have affairs, and why modern women have inherited from their ancestral mothers a roving eye.

Chapter 8 identifies the strategies we use to cope with jealousy and infidelity and why some therapeutic efforts to eradicate jealousy are often misguided.

The final chapter reveals the positive uses of jealousy for enhancing sexual passion and life-long love, and examines how we can harness emotional wisdom to enrich our relationships.

(C) David M. Buss All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-85081-8


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Jealousy in Love and Sex

Why do men and women cheat on each other? How do men really feel when their partners have sex with other men? What worries women more — men who turn to other women for love or men who simply want sexual variety in their lives? Can the jealousy husbands and wives or couples experience over real or imagined infidelities be cured? Should it be?

In this surprising and engaging exploration of men’s and women’s darker passions, David Buss, acclaimed author of The Evolution of Desire, reveals that both men and women are actually designed for jealousy. Drawing on experiments, surveys, and interviews conducted in thirty-seven countries on six continents, as well as insights from recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and psychology, Buss discovers that the evolutionary origins of our sexual desires still shape our passions today.

According to Buss, more men than women want to have sex with multiple partners. Furthermore, women who cheat on their husbands do so when they are most likely to conceive, but have sex with their spouses when they are least likely to conceive. These findings show that evolutionary tendencies to acquire better genes through different partners still lurk beneath modern sexual behavior. To counteract these desires to stray — and to strengthen the bonds between partners — jealousy evolved as an early detection system of infidelity in the ancient and mysterious ritual of mating.

Buss takes us on a fascinating journey through many cultures, from pre-historic to the present, to show the profound evolutionary effect jealousy has had on all of us. Only with a healthy balance of jealousy and trust can we be certain of a mate’s commitment, devotion, and true love.


Jealousy is not only inbred in human nature, but it is the most basic, all-pervasive emotion which touches man in all aspects of every human relationship. 

— Boris Sokoloff, 1947, Jealousy: A Psychological Study

Every human alive is an evolutionary success story. If any of our ancestors had failed to survive an ice age, a drought, a predator, or a plague, they would not be our ancestors. If any had failed to cooperate with at least some others in the group or dropped below a minimal position in the social hierarchy, they would have met certain death by being cast out from the group. If even one had failed to succeed in choosing, courting, and keeping a mate, the previously inviolate chain of descent would have irreparably broken, and we would not be alive to tell the tale. Each of us owes our existence to thousands of generations of successful ancestors. As their descendants, we have inherited the passions that led to their success — passions that drive us, often blindly, through a lifelong journey in the struggle for survival, the pursuit of position, and the search for relationships. 

We usually think of passion as restricted to sex or love, the burning embrace or constant craving. But it has a broader meaning, referring to the drives and emotional fires that propel us in our quests through life. They sometimes glow quietly, but at other times they burst into full flame. They range from tranquil devotion to violent eruption. Their expression yields life’s deepest joys, but also the cruelest suffering. And although we commonly think of passion as a force opposed to reason and rationality, something to be tamed or overcome, passions when properly understood have a crystalline logic, precise purpose, and supreme sensibility.

The drives that stir us out of bed at dawn and hurl us headlong into our daily struggles have two sides. On the positive side, passions inspire us to achieve life’s goals. They impel us to satisfy our desire for sex, our yearning for prestige, and our quest for love. The dazzling plays of Shakespeare, the mezmerizing art of Georgia O’Keeffe, and the brilliant inventions of Thomas Edison would not exist if passion had not stirred them from repose and impelled creation. Without passion, we would lie listless in bed, for there would be no motivation to do anything at all.

But passions carry a darker, more sinister side. The same passions that inspire us with love can lead to the disastrous choice of a mate, the desperation of unrequited obsession, or the terror of stalking. Jealousy can keep a couple committed or drive a man to savagely beat his wife. An attraction to a neighbor’s spouse can generate intoxicating sexual euphoria while destroying two marriages. The yearning for prestige can produce exhilarating peaks of power while evoking the corrosive envy of a rival and a fall from a greater height. The Dangerous Passion explores both the destructive and triumphant sides of human desires.

Together with many colleagues, my research over the past decade has centered on exploring the nature, origins, and consequences of the passions of men and women, with a special focus on jealousy, infidelity, love, sex, and status. Our goal has been to seek a deeper understanding of what makes men and women tick, the desires that drive people to heights of success or depths of despair, and the evolved mechanisms of mind that define who we are. This book illuminates the dark side of sexual treachery, the mysterious puzzle of romantic love, and the central role of jealousy in our intimate relationships.

Some argue that these mysteries should be left alone, pristine and untrammeled, shielded from the harsh glare of scientific scrutiny. But is the woman who has her freedom and sense of safety crushed by a jealous husband better off unequipped with the knowledge of how to prevent her torment? Is the man obsessed by unrequited love better off failing to understand the underlying reasons for his rejection? Ignorance may sometimes be bliss, but it can also cause needless anguish. My hope is that revealing the underlying logic of dangerous passions will be intellectually illuminating, provide one path for understanding the distress we experience at the hands of our lovers and rivals, and just possibly improve in some small measure the tools for coping with the untamed demons in our lives.

At the center of The Dangerous Passion is an exploration of a hazardous region of human sexuality — the desires people experience for those who are not their regular partners and the jealous shield designed to combat its treacherous consequences.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Think of a committed romantic relationship that you have now, or that you had in the past. Now imagine that your romantic partner becomes interested in someone else. What would upset or distress you more: (a) discovering that your partner is forming a deep emotional attachment, confiding and sharing confidences with another? or (b) discovering that your partner is enjoying passionate sex with the other person, trying out different sexual positions you had only dreamed about? Both scenarios are distressing, of course, but which one is more distressing? If you are like the majority of women we surveyed recently in the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Korea, and Zimbabwe, you will find the emotional infidelity more upsetting. The answer seems obvious, at least to women. The majority of men, however, find the prospect of a partner’s sexual infidelity more agonizing. The gulf between the sexes in emotional reactions to infidelity reveals something profound about human mating strategies.

The explanation for sex differences in jealousy lies deep in the evolutionary past of the human species. Consider first a fundamental sex difference in our reproductive biology: fertilization takes place inside women’s bodies, not men’s. Now, internal female fertilization is not universal in the biological world. In some species, such as the Mormon crickets, fertilization occurs internally within the male. The female takes her egg and literally implants it within the male, who then incubates it until birth. In other species, fertilization occurs externally to both sexes. The female salmon, for example, drops her collection of eggs after swimming upstream. The male follows and deposits his sperm on top, and then they die, having fulfilled the only mission in life that evolution gave them. But humans are not like salmon. Nor are we like Mormon crickets. In all 4,000 species of mammals, of which we are one, and in all 257 species of primates, of which we are also one, fertilization occurs internally within the female, not the male. This posed a grave problem for ancestral men — the problem of uncertainty in paternity.

From an ancestral man’s perspective, the single most damaging form of infidelity his partner could commit, in the currency of reproduction, would have been a sexual infidelity. A woman’s sexual infidelity jeopardizes a man’s confidence that he is the genetic father of her children. A cuckolded man risks investing years, or even decades, in another man’s children. Lost would be all the effort he expended in selecting and attracting his partner. Moreover, he would lose his partner’s labors, now channeled to a rival’s children rather than his own.

Women, on the other hand, have always been 100 percent sure that they are the mothers of their children (internal fertilization guarantees that their children are genetically their own). No woman ever gave birth and, watching the child emerge from her womb, wondered whether the child was really hers. One African culture captures this sex difference with a phrase more telling than any technical summary: “Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe.” Biology has granted women a confidence in genetic parenthood that no man can share with absolute certainty.

Our ancestral mothers confronted a different problem, the loss of a partner’s commitment to a rival woman and her children. Because emotional involvement is the most reliable signal of this disastrous loss, women key in on cues to a partner’s feelings for other women. A husband’s one-night sexual stand is agonizing, of course, but most women want to know: “Do you love her?” Most women find a singular lapse in fidelity without emotional involvement easier to forgive than the nightmare of another woman capturing her partner’s tenderness, time, and affection. We evolved from ancestral mothers whose jealousy erupted at signals of the loss of love, mothers who acted to ensure the man’s commitment.

But who cares who fathers a child or where a man’s commitments get channeled? Shouldn’t we love all children equally? Perhaps in some utopian future, we might, but that is not how the human mind is designed. Husbands in our evolutionary past who failed to care whether a wife succumbed to sex with other men and wives who remained stoic when confronted with their husband’s emotional infidelity may be admirable in a certain light. Perhaps these self-possessed men and women were more mature. Some theories, in fact, propose that jealousy is an immature emotion, a sign of insecurity, neurosis, or flawed character. Nonjealous men and women, however, are not our ancestors, having been left in the evolutionary dust by rivals with different passionate sensibilities. We all come from a long lineage of ancestors who possessed the dangerous passion.

Jealousy, according to this theory, is an adaptation. An adaptation, in the parlance of evolutionary psychology, is an evolved solution to a recurrent problem of survival or reproduction. Humans, for example, have evolved food preferences for sugar, fat, and protein that are adaptive solutions to the survival problem of food selection. We have evolved specialized fears of snakes, spiders, and strangers that are adaptive solutions to ancestral problems inflicted by dangerous species, including ourselves. We have evolved specialized preferences for certain qualities in potential mates, which helped to solve the problems posed by reproduction. Adaptations, in short, exist in modern humans today because they helped our ancestors to combat all of the many “hostile forces of nature,” enabling them to successfully survive and reproduce. Adaptations are coping devices passed down over millennia because they worked — not perfectly, of course, but they helped ancestral humans to struggle through the evolutionary bottlenecks of survival and reproduction.

Jealousy, according to this perspective, is not a sign of immaturity, but rather a supremely important passion that helped our ancestors, and most likely continues to help us today, to cope with a host of real reproductive threats. Jealousy, for example, motivates us to ward off rivals with verbal threats and cold primate stares. It drives us to keep partners from straying with tactics such as escalating vigilance or showering a partner with affection. And it communicates commitment to a partner who may be wavering, serving an important purpose in the maintenance of love. Sexual jealousy is often a successful, although sometimes explosive, solution to persistent predicaments that each one of our ancestors was forced to confront.

We are typically not conscious of these reproductive quandaries. Nor are we usually aware of the evolutionary logic that led to this dangerous passion. A man does not think, “Oh, if my wife has sex with someone else, then my certainty that I’m the genetic father will be jeopardized, and this will endanger the replication of my genes; I’m really mad.” Or if his partner takes birth-control pills, “Well, because Joan is taking the pill, it doesn’t really matter whether she has sex with other men; after all, my certainty in paternity is secure.” Nor does a woman think, “It’s really upsetting that Dennis is in love with that other woman; this jeopardizes my hold on his emotional commitments to me and my children, and hence hurts my reproductive success.” Instead, jealousy is a blind passion, just as our hunger for sweets and craving for companionship are blind. Jealousy is emotional wisdom, not consciously articulated, passed down to us over millions of years by our successful forebears. One goal of The Dangerous Passion is to bring to the surface the deep roots of the inherited emotional wisdom we possess.

The Othello Syndrome

Despite its value for people past and present, jealousy is an emotion that exposes partners to extreme danger. The dark side of jealousy causes men to explode violently to reduce the odds that their partners will stray. Women seeking refuge at shelters for battered women almost invariably report that their husbands seethe with jealousy. In one study of battered women, many of whom required medical attention, the typical woman reported that her husband “tries to limit my contact with friends and family” (the tactic of concealment), “insists on knowing where I am at all times” (the tactic of vigilance), and “calls me names to put me down and make me feel bad about myself” (the tactic of undermining self-esteem). Jealousy is the leading cause of spousal battering, but it’s even worse than that. Men’s jealousy puts women at risk of being killed.

Consider the following remarks made to police by a 31-year-old man who stabbed his 20-year-old wife to death, after they had been reunited following a six-month separation.


Then she said that since she came back in April she had fucked this other man about ten times. I told her how can you talk about love and marriage and you been fucking this other man. I was really mad. I went to the kitchen and got the knife. I went back to our room and asked: Were you serious when you told me that? She said yes. We fought on the bed, I was stabbing her. Her grand-father came up and tried to take the knife out of my hand. I told him to go and call the cops for me. I don’t know why I killed the woman, I loved her. 


Jealousy can be emotional acid that corrodes marriages, undermines self-esteem, triggers battering, and leads to the ultimate crime of murder. Despite its dangerous manifestations, jealousy helped to solve a critical reproductive quandary for ancestral men. Jealous men were more likely to preserve their valuable commitments for their own children rather than squandering them on the children of their rivals. As descendants of a long line of men who acted to ensure their paternity, modern men carry with them the dangerous passion that led to their forebears’ reproductive success. 

A professional couple therapist I know related to me the following story. A young couple, Joan and Richard, came to her with a complaint of irrational jealousy. Without provocation, Richard would burst into jealous tirades and accuse Joan of sleeping with another man. His uncontrollable jealousy was destroying their marriage. Richard and Joan both agreed on this point. Could the therapist help cure Richard of irrational jealousy? A common practice in couple therapy is to have at least one session with each member of the couple individually. The first question the therapist posed to Joan during this individual interview was: Are you having an affair? She burst into tears and confessed that, indeed, she had been carrying on an affair for the past six months. Richard’s jealousy, it turned out, had not been irrational after all. He had been picking up on subtle cues of his wife’s infidelity that triggered his jealousy. Since he trusted Joan and she had assured him of her fidelity, however, he believed that his jealousy had been irrational. In a sense, Richard had failed to listen to his internal emotional whisperings. He came to the wrong conclusion because he overrode his feelings with “rationality.”

This episode gave me the first hint that jealousy represented a form of ancestral wisdom that can have useful as well as destructive consequences. Despite the possible hazards of conducting research on jealousy, its potency convinced me that it could not be ignored by science. In surveys we discovered that nearly all men and women have experienced at least one episode of intense jealousy. Thirty-one percent say that their personal jealousy has sometimes been difficult to control. And among those who admit to being jealous, 38 percent say that their jealousy has led them to want to hurt someone.

Extreme jealousy has been given many names — the Othello syndrome, morbid jealousy, psychotic jealousy, pathological jealousy, conjugal paranoia, and erotic jealousy syndrome. Jealousy, of course, can be pathological. It can destroy previously harmonious relationships, rendering them hellish nightmares of daily existence. Trust slowly built from years of mutual reliance can be torn asunder in a crashing moment. As we will explore in a later chapter, jealousy leads more women to flee in terror to shelters than any other cause. A full 13 percent of all homicides are spousal murders, and jealousy is overwhelmingly the leading cause.

But destruction does not necessarily equal pathology. The pathological aspect of extreme jealousy, according to the mainstream wisdom, is not the jealousy itself. It is the delusion that a loved one has committed an infidelity when none has occurred. The rage itself upon the actual discovery of an infidelity is something people everywhere intuitively understand. In Texas until 1974, a husband who killed a wife and her lover when he caught them in flagrante delicto was not judged a criminal. In fact, the law held that a “reasonable man” would respond to such extreme provocation with acts of violence. Similar laws have been on the books worldwide. Extreme rage upon discovering a wife naked in the arms of another man is something that people everywhere find intuitively comprehensible. Criminal acts that would normally receive harsh prison sentences routinely get reduced when the victim’s infidelity is the extenuating circumstance.

The view of jealousy as pathological ignores a profound fact about an important defense designed to combat a real threat. Jealousy is not always a reaction to an infidelity that has already been discovered. It can be an anticipatory response, a preemptive strike to prevent an infidelity that might occur. Labeling jealousy as pathological simply because a spouse has not yet strayed ignores the fact that jealousy can head off an infidelity that might be lurking on the horizon of a relationship.

Excessive jealousy can be extraordinarily destructive. But moderate jealousy, not an excess or an absence, signals commitment. This book explores both sides of this double-edged defense mechanism.

To understand the power of this extraordinary emotion, we must trace it to its origin, long before capitalism, long before agriculture and cash economies, long before writing and recorded history, and long before humans fanned out and colonized every habitable continent. We must trace its roots to the evolution of one of the most unusual adaptations in primate history, yet one that we take so much for granted that its existence is hardly questioned: the emergence of long-term love.

continued tomorrow….

(C) David M. Buss All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-85081-8