Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
June 2017

Imagined Nations

How many Centauri does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Just one, but in the great old days of the Republic,
hundreds of slaves would change a thousand light bulbs
at our slightest whim!”
- Ambassador Londo Molari, Babylon 5

The American dream is dead.”
- Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States

In my January column, I made a pun, which the editor changed on the website version to “imagined notions,” which makes just as much sense, grammatically and contextually, but loses the joke. I am not complaining about this. When I finally noticed the change, months later, it led me to do a search for that phrase, “imagined nations,” to see if it was a cliché or something. Was I being ignorant, when I had thought I was being clever (not an uncommon occurrence, really)?

What I found was the concept of imagined communities, based on a thirty-year-old book of the same title by Benedict Anderson. He said that nationalism is socially constructed, based on shared media, especially media in a shared language. Those activists who want to make English the official language of the US are trying to strengthen the ties between English speakers by excluding speakers of Spanish and Vietnamese and Klingon. The two effects are sides of the same coin. In order to define an inside, there must be a boundary, and anything or anyone beyond that boundary must be defined as outside. This is true at the cellular level, at the level of an individual body, and at the level of a social community.

Science fiction, from Babylon 5 all the way back to Gulliver's Travels, has looked at nationalism as an inherently bad and dangerous thing, a fake and false thing, a grand delusion that prevents rational, universal cooperation. The war between the two tiny-people nations of Lilliput and Blefuscu grew from the most trivial disagreement Swift could come up with:

This, however, is thought to be a meer Strain upon the Text: For the Words are these: That all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End: and which is the convenient End, seems, in my humble Opinion, to be left to every Man's Conscience, or at least in the power of the Chief Magistrate to determine.”

Anderson, on the other hand, emphasized the creative aspect of “imagined,” as in creating a real new thing rather than lying about something that never existed and never will. He wrote about the “utopian elements” of nationalism, which encourage good behavior among the members of that nation. Later, evolutionary biologists like DS Wilson would agree that the point of religion is also to increase cooperation inside the group; writing off those outside the group is a regrettable but unavoidable cost of the increased cohesion. Alan Moore, trickster magician that he is, merged these arguments in Watchmen, saying that the only viable way to get human beings to cooperate is to define an external enemy, even if that enemy has to be a made-up interdimensional monster, and even if some of your own people have to die to sell the lie.

There's now a great deal of research implying that the humanist dream of universal community is not realistic when actual humans are involved. We can only carry a limited number of names, faces, and social profiles in our tribal primate brains (ironically, sociopathic dictators often seem to carry a lot more). According to this research, it's very difficult for us to generate the same level of concern for people we don't personally know. While a photo of an individual child can fool us into feeling as though we know that individual, photos of groups as small as two are less effective at provoking charity (yes, they test these things).

Buddhists would disagree, saying that compassion is like a muscle that requires practice to activate and strengthen the neural circuits responsible, which they do in meditations on metta, or loving-kindness. The rituals and founding myths of nation-states are another way of trying to hijack our emotions to allow us to cooperate with people we don't know and trust (often for the purpose of screwing over other people), to give us an illusion of control over the rising and falling tides of history. Economics is yet another attempt, but targeting instead our calculating, selfish egos. All of them work to some extent.

Even scientists, supposedly some of the most objective people around, group themselves into little feuding tribes. I do an exercise with my Governor's School students where I put the following list on the whiteboard and then give them dry-erase markers and ask them to label it with the names of sciences that study these levels of structure (physics, psychology, etc.).

Organ System

The list could be extended on either end; I just run out of vertical room on the board. It serves as a starting point for the students to discuss the limits of various scientific fields while they're drawing. What we end up with is a fantastically colored Venn diagram, illustrating that there's only one physical reality, described in many different ways at different levels. All of our various scientific communities of practice are just that—social communities based on shared vocabulary. Each group is studying some subset of the same integrated system. That's why we call it a universe.

One of the things that comes out of the exercise is the realization that the same scientist can belong to multiple communities. As a neuroscientist, I get to study bits of chemistry, biology, psychology, computer science, and the humanities. My strongest tribal affiliation is with biology, I suppose, but my emotional attachments to any discipline are probably weaker than those of many other scientists. My time commitments to individual professional societies and such are measurably smaller, because I do a lot of different things. There are both benefits and costs to my approach; one of the main costs is that the academy rewards those who stay in their silos and specialize, because it minimizes competition with other members of the department. Intellectual nomads like me tend to step on people's toes as we're wandering around in the dark, no matter how nice we might try to be about it.

So it's with hopeful skepticism that I propose a social organization I call INTERTRIBES, as in tribes that overlap one another like a Venn diagram, or like chain mail. With a few exceptions like dual citizenship, our current hierarchical models of personal identity nested into society are about complete belonging. You can only belong to one species, as a matter of biological definition. I see that as a problem. We may have exhausted the possibilities of emotional and economic hacks designed to expand our personal bubbles of cooperation until they merge into a single perfect utopian bubble that encompasses the whole species, or the whole cosmos.

I want to explore instead how partially overlapping social groups can strengthen cooperation at a larger scale. In other words, I want to ditch the idea of perfect community and see if we can achieve “good enough” cooperation by having everyone belong to multiple groups, and emphasize friend-of-a-friend relationships. The answer has always been to increase in-group cooperation, in bigger and bigger groups. What if another, more practical answer is to decrease it in-group, in order to have more room for between-group cooperation? Just to toss out a frinstance, what if everyone became somewhat competent in five randomly chosen languages?

In terms of academic research, I can see this being a good question for simulation to tackle, similar to what other groups are doing for religion. How many in-group and between-group links are optimal? What's the optimal ratio of link strengths? It could also make for some pretty cool stories. After all, what's a story but a simulation, involving interacting agents, described in words instead of numbers?

Randall Hayes, Ph.D., read “The Man Without a Country” in grade school, and totally missed the point. Sorry, Mr. Hale.









It’s one thing to say that a show was ahead of its time, but season 1 of Bab 5 is downright spooky, given where we are right now as a country.


The longer I stayed, the more I sensed that my fellow-attendees occupied a parallel universe in which white Americans face imminent demise, the South is preparing to depart the United States, and Donald Trump is going to be President.”


Just click the ‘religion’ box to see several dozen short articles.




“The Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now” requires a free registration to read it. JSTOR allows you three free articles at a time, a take on the freemium model I’ve not seen before.






The Guardian, on the other hand, relies on donations to keep all of their content free.





Of course, the Evil Empire and the Noble Savage are also simplifying myths. This article also refers back to the Mound Builders of last month’s column.



The human need to encompass life within the framework of myth is not merely a longing for pleasing illusion. Myths reflect a fundamental human need for a larger shape to our collective aspirations. And it is an illusion to think that we can so ignore that need, and so cauterize our souls, that we will never again be troubled by it.”


As I wrote in column 2, money is another route to the same goal.



Sarah Smarsh agrees: “Contrary to popular narratives, you can be a progressive populist, a wealthy and college-educated Trump supporter, a rural laborer of color, a provincial urbanite, an open-minded midwesterner.”


Biologists call this strategy niche partitioning, and in nature it can get pretty extreme. Parasites can specialize not just to individual species, but down to the level of individual organs.


Chemical hacks might be a different story.


An interview, not a typical article, but fascinating. Discusses religion generally and through a case study, a new religion called Kivung in Papua New Guinea.



The title is a bit misleading, as it is actually a profile of the Modeling Religion Project, which goes way beyond atheism.


Read more by Randall Hayes

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