Devoted actors

These dog days are sweltering and keeping the gardens going is exhausting.  I still read and react but have little energy left to blog.  Here is something that percolated up easily.

Science news has a summary article about research into why or how people develop the will to fight to the death even in suicidal fashion, especially the work by anthropologist Scott Atran and colleagues on the battlefield. Through a variety of methodologies he finds two factors. The first is dedication to values deemed sacred and the second is a particular extreme group identity supporting those values and justifying fighting for them, even imposing them on others or killing them if resisted. These people he terms ‘devoted actors’. Of course their research is recent and much is focused on jihadi groups like ISIS; they also give some historical examples of devoted actors like the Viet Cong (indeed probably any popular guerilla insurgence), certain Nazi troops, and the two sides in our US civil war.

On April 4/20/2014 I posted here about ‘love and hate’ which I re-read a minute ago. The idea here is to distinguish between anger as an adaptive emotion and hate that is maladaptive for two reasons. First, anger comes and goes; yes we can summon it back remembering or dreaming of the situation, but that is different from anger as an actual experience. Hate continues without end and that loses its adaptive advantage real fast. Second, hate over-rides the empathic functions for anyone not in the in-group; hate tunes out the thoughts, feelings and most importantly perspective of everyone in the out-group and so control of them is the only option because cooperation is ruled out. This begins to sound very familiar in many ways, doesn’t it?

The 4/20/14 post goes on to talk about the emotional brain, i.e., limbic system, how it forms a feedback look which can amplify or diminish any current emotion, and how humans can use their symbolic capacity to turn that transient and adaptive feeling into a steady state like hate or ‘devotion.’ This operates at a basic level in any kind of prejudice or stereotypical thinking, whether it is ISIS or racial/ethnic/religious/gender discrimination, e.g., against Jewish people or African-Americans, women, LGBT, or political parties. This is important because it is willful and intentional, choices are made, and so can be changed over time—different choices can be made. (So, to our politicos, please make better choices about how you consider the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of those different from you). The SN articles reports that the best way to counter “sacred apocalyptic values” inspiring terrorism can be seen in how the Kurds approach their fight to resist the jihadists. The Kurds endorse “deeply held, life- and freedom- affirming values that [they as a group] are willing to defend unconditionally”. Their Peshmerga are the troops that anchor this fight. The name means to ‘face death.’ To be clear, they do not seek death, only to face it when defending their community in the face of an existential threat.

This all makes sense, doesn’t it? It is a good article about very good research. Scott Atran has just published an article in Current Anthropology (June 2016), The “devoted actor: unconditional commitment and intractable conflict across cultures.” Let me broaden the discussion a bit over what makes a devoted actor and go to less extreme examples. Certainly some actors are devoted to a cause or values in a less unconditional manner. Liberals and conservatives are devoted to their approaches and rarely change their minds (and it used to be that they were still able to work together). Community organizers, including religious ones, sustain a passionate belief in the life and freedom affirming values. Certain scientists, doctors, therapists, etc., and even artists devote themselves to carry out these values to the exclusion of much else in their work or life. We can be devoted quite easily in our intimate relationships, familial and otherwise. The important feature here is to maintain communication with those different from us and not to isolate into a narrow-minded group for feedback and amplification of hateful prejudice (remember I write this during the summer of red meat and political conventions).

I have also thought of a few more historical examples. Consider another old post from 11/10/14 about an ancient religious sect, the Atargatis, into which men gained admission by self-castration. Now there’s devoted commitment. Or the Maya who sacrificed so many of their own youth and then youth they had captured that they blooded their culture and civilization into the ground and out of existence. On a higher note, consider the Shakers who believe men and women are equal manifestations of god and that procreation should stop. They readily adopted children from others, but they themselves were celibate in devotion to an apocalyptic belief. Curiously they are or were a Quaker (the plain people) sect who worshipped ecstatically, e.g., they shake. Easy to understand why their numbers are small.

Finally one more example comes to mind after reading the article and its mention of the civil war. Yes, abolitionists and slavers probably qualify as devoted actors, though many died in that war who were not quite so devoted. Their conflict seemed intractable and while the war resolved that our laws would favor equal rights, just like hate keeps ringing in a fanatic’s mind, some groups continue to operate their prejudices devotedly though, thankfully, conditionally most of the time. Apart from the constant struggle for equality imposed by lingering history upon African-Americans (and women and LGBT and others), a certain group of devoted actors work, as they see it, to keep their heritage alive and respected. My family is from the south and I lived all my life trying to understand some version of ‘the south shall rise again’. Really? Not if decent people are also devoted to life and freedom. Most recently around here this has become a conflict over flying the Confederate flag even at our local Christmas parade. I see these Rebel sympathizers as devoted actors, a rigidly held value coupled with an insular in-group that hinders the understanding of others’ perspectives. And it also hinders their developing a more creative and congenial way of honoring their ancestors than flying a slaver’s flag in front of children and others who celebrate a true spirit of Christmas. So with that, I had better travel on.

P.S. Oh no, I remembered something else about the devoted jihadists I wanted to share. A recent letter to the editor explained why that writer does not use the term ‘radical Islam’ to denote jihadists like ISIS, because he said, their cause does not merit any justification or sanction based upon religion or their god. For this reason he does not use the term ‘radical Christianity’ for groups like the KKK or people who kill doctors who provide abortions. I like his open perspective and belief that religious justification for killings and other crimes is only a cover for those humans whose humanity has been warped to inhumanity by their fanatic pursuit of power and control.

Re-reading: old words, new meanings

I am rereading Gerald Edelman’s and Giulio Tononi’s book, A Universe of Consciousness, and once again am struck by how much these guys knew and thought. The first time through a few years back I took in the idea of reentrance, the notion that much of brain function is characterized by reentrant processing, i.e., circuits form loops and amplify or mitigate informational patterns by recirculating the results. This is not for feedback in a corrective process but more feedforward for a constructive one and that is one important distinction for a symbolizing species. I have kept this in mind quite a bit as I have read and thought about our brains.

This time I am struck by how much I missed or neglected to ponder to a fuller extent about two other concepts. They say our brain functions are shaped by two other processes they call degeneration and value. Now I am working to understand fully the new meanings of these two words.

Degeneration, heretofore in my experience, meant falling apart or, in crude folk parlance, someone who molests children or had otherwise degenerated from being fully human. Edelman and Tononi use the word to denote how different processes can end in the same result. Now this is a curious insight and on third reading, profound. Consider how perceptual processes, the neural variability of which must be considerable when you consider the system from retina to object recognition in the cortex, result in object constancy, i.e., different processes, same result. Going further, consider how brains differ so grandly from each other e.g., 10,000,000,000 neurons, 10x that many glia, and exponentially more synapses connecting them all in some complex multiplicity of systems, yet each essentially functions to the same ends. Imagine, and this can only be imagined, if every computer was different from every other in hardware and software yet still processed unstructured input to the same result. In the realm of cognition, consider how different neural patternings can elicit the same memory, how our memories are almost holographic in their flexibility or how many different exemplars are known as falling into the same category. So degeneration is an amazing generalization about neural processes.

What about value? The meaning in biology with which I am familiar lies in the processing result of the system organized around the amygdala and with dopamine, i.e., does the stimulus have survival value (fight/flight) or indicate approach/avoidance, i.e., is it positive or negative in value? Edelman and Tononi use the term, as best I can tell, to denote evolutionary value; that is, once a structural or functional feature has appeared in evolution and is found to be adaptive, further evolution tends to elaborate upon that value. I really like this one.

Remember that sexual reproduction appeared long eons ago and continues to work in many ways because of its value, e.g., introduces controlled variability to the genetic streams. Consider conspecific communication (one of my favorites) that has evolved from finding a mate to social cooperation to cultural organization. The value of conspecific communication is especially evident in the development of empathy in both parenting and social relations. For a specific example, consider that oxytocin, one of the primary hormonal instigators of parental and altruistic feelings and behaviors, appeared on the scene some 400 million years ago and over the course of evolution has transformed to different forms in more powerful brains to promote prosocial relationships. Now that’s real value, and I won’t even begin to talk about the linguistic and aesthetic symbols of our conspecific communication.

So old words and wildly new meanings, a good reason for re-reading. Well, off to ponder some more (and work in the garden).