Sunday, 12 October 2014

PERSPECTIVE: Speculations on the neurology of high fallutin national-security-think

Click on the link on the right to composer/pianist Bill Doerrfeld's little youtube essay on the mindlessness of arms policy in the United States. Consider in Australia how a deeply swiftly unpopular prime minister has brought the children back under his skirt with national security barking. First you have a massive raid against a decapitation plot in downtown Sydney, then much later the "evidence" sword is a piece of plastic household decoration. The deep tragedy, as John Birmingham notes, is that farce attends and takes centre stage when there are real issues out there, albeit seen from biased focus.

And the atmosphere of security-security has bully boys unleashing themselves.

The late Carl Sagan (see little movie, link right) wrote a lovely book Dragons of Eden, speculations on the evolution of human intelligence, developing neuroscientist Paul MacLean's concept of the Triune Brain.

The argument is not going to be popular with people who dress up, hold ceremonies, march about saying "I'm boss, I'm right, step in line there" and declare the right to whack or lock in or lock out on the basis of moral certitude. Because the argument is that those instincts are not advanced Homo sapiens things but come from the R-complex, the Reptilian Complex, above the brain stem... that we share with dinosaurs and ants.

There are some complexities, see this book by Stephen J Gould. The other two elements in this 'triune brain' are the limbic system from which arise feelings including those we claim unto our own species as 'humanitarian'. And thirdly there is the hominid development, the frontal lobes. Without which not possible to scribble this blog entry, or articulate arguments bigoted or unbigoted. It was the current Australian Attorney General, a lawyer with the biggest personal library in the national parliament's history, who in March muddied his own argument in favour of severe national security laws by throwing another bomb into debate, declaring that there is a human right for bigots to be bigots in public. I would go further than the Attorney General. This is not just a right asserted and exercised by humans, it is also exercised by ants now and dinosaurs previously. A-G Brandis's silliness has underlying it a dreadful truth. We just have to begin to see how much public discussion is bigoted, based on preformed simple views of the world, hedged-in fears and fantastications. Discuss the issue of female moslem headdress with someone studying Who Magazine or perhaps ogling our prime minister on a sunny day. Whose normal is normal, rant rant... Human rights policy, however, should be normatively based, not empirically based, that is, not reflecting the fact that we are a world full of nongs. Human rights policy is meaningful and valuable only when it inspires us to build more mutually tolerant and respectful community. It seems, if that is the case, that human rights policy will inevitably be in conflict with pressures from the r-complex.

The frontal lobes are a part of the problem. Some would tell us that they are god's design, our species's assurance of infinite superiority. But evolution is not purposive, things evolve in ways unintended. My own take on this is that fire and the cooking of meat enabled the frontal lobes to develop at a time when evolving hominids found themselves awkwardly upright and inadequately hirsute and survival went to those who developed wonderful high-cholesterol (a healthy brain is >30% cholesterol) cooling devices in the front of their brains. Which had a lot of redundant processing capacity compared with system-critical parts of the brain, giving rise to awareness and an ever persisting desire to argue the case for tribal rectitude and articulate claims of certainty in a basically uncertain world.

The strongest arguments for the flag or the cross or the right to shoot have primitive, not high level origins. And should not be trusted. 

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