Archive for February, 2011


His Brain IBM

From Mr. Roboto by Styx.

In this post, I talked about how domesticated animals changed our evolution as primates and contributed to many of our cultural habits and skills. Not only did we literally evolve differently due to our relations with wolves (which became dogs) but we also probably learned things from them (and from birds, and a bunch of other animals).

My friend, in reply, sent me this on-point and interesting piece (thanks David). The point of this article is that now that our brains have reached a certain level, technology is replacing animals as the main drivers and funnelers of our biological progress. The simple example the article uses is our stomachs (this is a pretty common example) which have changed to become much weaker since we have found many ways to dice, cook, burn, bake, and boil our food to make it easier to digest. We have in essence created, using our minds, a second digestive process, and our bodies have adapted to fall in line with the availability of this method. A bunch of our current innovations will probably have evolutionary consequences as well .

This is contrasted with animals who have auxiliary tools endowed by genetics alone. In other words, hives or nests. These structures augments animals in certain ways, but are not created ex nihilo, but come about from genetic coding implacably moving the animals to build the right structures, etc. (I think the way termites build their nests is based on smell, which changes as different parts of arches are formed. The result is a bunch of haphazard arches being built resulting in the structure of the colony.)

The article then returns to humans, and has this nice sentence.

We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature itself is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today.

Very true, but its important to remember that our latest and most explosive technology (industrial revolution, internet, etc.) have not yet had much of a chance to really alter us biologically. That’s why people get really fat, because they’re shopping in supermarkets with bodies built for hunting on the savannah (so cliche. Why does everyone use that description. I don’t know but I didn’t want to think of a better way to say it).

One caveat though.  Genetic change could come much more rapidly if it became driven by something other than natural selection. In natural selection, genes change as people die out due to not surviving, but there might not be too much of that since many people survive to have kids these days, though as many will rightly and quickly point out, there may be other mechanisms for genetic changes to spread other than outright death to those who can’t cut it. Also, how parochial of me to think only of Europe; plenty of people are still dying all over the world due to things like malaria etc. On the other hand, we did eliminate smallpox forever from humans (unless biological warfare comes back into vogue), which will have some lasting evolutionary consequences for sure.

Ok, that paragraph got long-winded, but what I wanted to say was that there is such a thing as MATE SELECTION. In very sexist and crude terms, girls have to decide who they want to get with. So, even if you’re SURVIVING great with a third arm, you may have trouble getting a girl to hook up with you.

But we can be more refined because it concerns men and women. This mechanism (mate selection) works not by the death of those who can’t cut it genetically, but just due to the fact that some people are so weird that no one will have sex with them. These people don’t get to pass on their genes, and this mechanism can get working really rapidly since who we have sex with is heavily linked with cultural and social factors. So if video game “athletes” become culturally powerful and popular, then they will see their sex shoot up, which will mean, if you buy into stereotypes, more DNA favoring eye-hand coordination, ectomorphic body shape, paleness, and pimples.

That’s where humanity is going.


Temple Grandin

Is the author of Animals in Translation and is an autistic woman who has effectively moved my life in a substantially different direction due to her writing.

I wrote about her book here and I think her thoughts needed a second look, and this will kind of be in book review format.

The problem for me was that the middle of her book is kind of boring. Its about, for want of a better characterization, animal breeding techniques and rules of thumb for making animals happy. The basic summary is that we are breeding animals to be much less than what they were originally, and this is always the case, as far as I can tell, with anything. If you make something easier, you make it worse. Before, TRAINERS had to do a lot to make an animal ready for human service or cohabitation, but now we’re breeding animals that are such zombies that there may not be as much work for owners and trainers.

The end of the book however really blew my mind. There are a bunch of insights.

The first is a full fledged substantiation of the claim that animals and autistic people probably see the world in similar way, that is, without the SCHEMATIZATION provided for by the normal human brain, which fills things in with a mental paint brush so that nothing is too jarring or weird. This is helpful for a bunch of things, but autistic people get access to a much lower level of information processing (before its gussyied up with the “mind’s eye”) and so can do amazing things. There are SAVANTS, and for Grandin, all animals are savants.

For example, some dogs can sense 30 minutes IN ADVANCE when someone is going to have a seizure. No one has any idea what details they are picking up, but nonetheless these animals KNOW when their owners are going to have a stroke and can be trained to respond by standing on their master to prevent them from hurting themselves. This is simply amazing to me, but shows that animals have access to perceptual cues that no human could dream of seeing.

Another case, geese and other birds learn migratory routes 1000’s of miles long IN ONE TRIP. How this is accomplished neurologically is anyone’s guess.

There’s more. Grandin hypothesizes that music is a type of communication that was first found in animals (birds) and was copied by humans. You see, very few primates sing and so she hypothesizes that humans learned how to create music from imitating birds, whose songs turn out to be very complex.

There’s also a section on Prairie Dogs that will make you reconsider your views on animals altogether. Apparently, prairie dogs have a VERY advanced language that lets them talk about specific predators, their rate of approach, and hypothesized actions they will take. The language is generative, meaning that it can adapted to new situations, and it may exhibit DISPLACEMENT, which means the ability to talk about things that are not present in the immediate environment.

There are also some points, especially interesting to a philosopher about how verbal cognition of an event OVERSHADOWS visual representation. There are studies where people look at a bank robber or something and then are asked to do verbal tasks and some are not. The people who do verbal tasks have trouble recognizing the robber when shown another picture of him, but people who were given visual/imagistic tasks were able to easily due so after the same amount of time.

Last, Grandin hypothesizes that human co-evolved with wolves. This is unbelievably thought-provoking to me because they idea here is that humans domesticated wolves, but that wolves ALSO domesticated humans by shrinking our brain size. But thank god they did. Neanderthals died out, the hypothesis goes, because they did not have dogs (neotenied wolves, see previous post) cooperating with them. But homo sapiens did. So quite literally, we took over certain tasks such as strategy and planning while our dogs took over sensory tasks. We gained the allegiance of certain savants and used them as extensions of ourselves to move forward evolutionarily. There is even the idea that humans learned sociality and PACK-HUNTING by following the behaviors of domesticated and evolutionarily friendly dogs.

So, I will never look at animals the same, because as this book shows, the question of whether they are “smarter” than us, may have very little meaning. Animals are like autistic people: incapable of some tasks but incredibly capable at others (autistic people are used in quality control for sensitive parts because they can, quite literally SEE the problems with various products as they come off the assembly line, even when these flaws are impossible to detect for the normal human), and humans evolved to be co-capable with them. We used to use animals as EXTENSIONS of our own consciousnesses as ways to see further, hear quieter sounds, and smell predator or delinquent homo sapiens. We TEAMED UP with animals in a very special way that is not fully appreciated. We were, in a very serious way, taught to understand beauty from birds, taught to hunt like wolves, and taught to socialize like them as well. We owe many parts of our very psychology, and our unique relationship with the other inhabitants of this earth is not something that we have to worry about for the sake of the “ecosystem” but for our very progress as conscious agents.




No Cute Title, just three serious points about Wisconsin

I was reading an article about the Wisconsin goings-on. As always, I’m woefully uninformed about the details, though one of my friends who is, assures me that the republican governor Scott Walker is royally screwing everyone. I have no comment on that front.

But there are three lessons though that one can get from this without taking a stand on the moral probity of republicans or their leader in this little drama: Scott Walker.


The first comes from Matt Yglesias, who says (and I agree with him) that labor unions have a lot of power and perhaps we don’t need to be concerned that they can’t look after themselves. In fact, I think he thinks (and again I would agree) that labor unions (particularly public sector labor unions) funnel a lot of yummy pork their way without contributing to the benefit of our governments. They also have a huge amount of political power and so can probably, in general look out for themselves. So, in Wisconsin, they’re losing some of their ridiculous perks. Boo Hoo. Don’t get me wrong, I get the impression that Scott Walker is a kind of an angry vigilante with the wrong motives, but I’m just saying I’m not really that sad to hear that some of the benefits for public sector unionists are getting cut.

Yglesias is smart and he knows all this, but nonetheless, the post I cited is somehow about how its wrong to think that corporations don’t also control everything with their clout. Ok fine, but what does that have to do anything? Yea, it would be bad if all the cuts to the union wages went straight to more subsidies for corporations or whatever, but what does that have to do with the wisdom of cuts? If these unions are soaking up public benefits, then cutting them would be good, regardless of what other stupid things government does.

Another way to put the point is this: what are the arguments in favor of not cutting benefits to public sector labor unions?


Next, there is a point about deliberative democracy, something I believe very strongly in. The idea of deliberative democracy is that the purpose and value of democracy does not come simply from its AGGREGATION procedure. In other words, democracy gains its usefulness to us not simply from giving us “majority-rule” which is a numeric procedure used to decide between competing policies. On this purely aggregative notion, democracy is merely a power-allocating system. It allocates power to those who gain the most votes.

Deliberative democracy however says that the point of democracy is PARTIALLY to enhance the understanding and rational capabilities of its participants. So to give a short summary of the idea: democracy is not meant to simply decide who gets to pass laws, but also to convince those who get to pass laws to pass good ones and to help those who don’t get to pass laws understand why certain laws are getting passed. Democracy is for elevating, purifying, spiritualizing, refining, enhancing, and building preferences, not just for deciding whose un-elevated, un-spiritualized, un-enhanced, preferences get to reign supreme.

One way our constitution respects this is by not just allowing congress to vote impeach the president (using pure numbers, as it were, to stop the prez) but by allowing congress to INVESTIGATE the prez and thereby thwart his goals by exposing them, clarifying them, or calling attention to them. The public gains as the president loses, where in impeachment, the public may not become more enlightened, though a misguided president may be ousted.

But then we can see that the Democrats fleeing the Wisconsin Senate is a strike against deliberative democracy. Why? Because they are refusing to represent the voice of those (presumably a minority) who disagree with Gov. Walker. But let me be careful. By fleeing, these democrats are representing the PREFERENCE of these few — those who were outvoted in the last election and now find their outrage impotent — but not their VOICES, and the reason is that these deputies of the people are not voicing the arguments in favor of not union busting. They are not giving expression to the rational bases for being opposed (whatever those are) to cutting union benefits and bargaining rights.

By refusing to engage the majority who won in a fair election, these Democrats are doing damage to the democratic process, even though they are simultaneously serving the preferences of their constituents.

I’ll put it one final, but still metaphorical way. These democrats are amplifying the power of their constituents, but are silencing their voices.


There is the prank call from someone pretending to be David Koch. Apparently, Walker picked up the phone and spoke to this actor/prankster for a few minutes before realizing the gig. I think, as a theorist always looking for data points and examples, is a fantastic way of showing the power of humor.

As I wrote elsewhere humor has  a special role to play in political systems, and this shows it well. A simple joke here has an ability to CUT THROUGH argument, rhetoric, emotions, and even protests to FRAME the issue in a certain way. I’m not saying this way is right (in fact I don’t think that its that bad, IN ITSELF, to cut benefits to unions, though I agree that Walker seems extreme and a little crazy), but the power here is undeniable. Humor can CHANGE THE WHOLE GAME and make us see the situation in a completely new light, namely, as one in which a vengeful conservative conspires with capital to squash the hopes of labor.

Further study of how this joke plays out would be a goldmine of insights I think to sociologists and anthropologists (amateur or professional).


Hanging on in Quiet Desperation is the English Way

Title from Pink Floyd’s Time.

Anyway, here’s a short little something I thought about today as I was in a meeting.

Objective time differs from subjectively experienced time. Indeed, as physics tells us, there is no PRESENT, only different locations 0f space time (that’s why time travel is theorized as possible by physics). Humans however experience things as present or past or future. We are concerned about the future but we aren’t worried about the past and we think we are living in the present. Also, if we’re having fun then time “flies” but if we’re bored then time is stable.

I’ve said all that many times on this blog (though i can’t find the damn posts because wordpresses search feature seems to be quite bad).

What I realized today though is just a slight twist on this same old song and dance, which is that when you’re speaking, it seems like time is not passing. I was in a meeting and each person was asked to say something “quick” and once someone started talking, they seemed to forget just how long they were talking and how much they were actually saying. When I got my turn, I vowed to be quick, but sure enough, as soon as I got to my thoughts, I realized I had said A LOT and that I needed to shut up.

I don’t know what the connection is. Does narcissism make time speed up, or it something to do with VERBALIZATION, or just thinking in general? Is it that each though has a little “NOW!” marker attached to it in consciousness. I’m not sure, but it seems like intense brain activity makes time compress, as when you’re thinking intensely about something, or using your skills as when one plays in a sports game; it seems like you’re getting taken out almost as soon as you got in the game. You want to get back into the rush of playing.

When you’re sleeping and your mind is off, time of course disappears, that’s why its good to sleep on airplanes: you get to your destination “instantly.” Of course though, your mind is not “off” when you’re sleeping, but rather is doing all sorts of things, one of them being dreaming. But is there a feeling of time in dreams? Not a question with an easy answer but one I’m tentatively inclined to think is answered by no. In fact, it seems like whole dreams happen in the “instant” between my head hitting the pillow and my eyes opening in the morning. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy.

I usually don’t like to ask questions in blog posts, because I feel like its usually patronizing, but here I’ll ask, with sincerity,  does anyone feel like there is time in dreams?

Also, this article on the psychology of time is pretty wild.


Don’t Bring Me Down

I was looking for a song to encapsulate this post, and it wasn’t easy, perhaps because my tastes are pretty mainstream and so I don’t get a lot of gothic, death metal, or slit-your-wrist type stuff (no judgments).

Anyway, I think Don’t Bring Me Down by electric light orchestra comes pretty close to getting the flavor of this post, but its weird how most songs about the negative side of everyday life are usually about broken hearts. Another appropriate song might be the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony (more the music video than anything, but the lyrics a little bit).

“But what is the subject of this post, and why do these songs match it?” you ask.  Well, in this post I want to ask a question, which is “is everyday life insulting?” In a way, this question is kind of boring, because it could be easily run together with: is every day life lonely? Is it depressing? Is it boring? But maybe there is way to give a unique content to this question that will then make its answer a little more exciting as well. I’ve talked about insults before on this blog, and so I’ve made some tentative theoretical incursions into what an insult is, and how it works. (See here)

So first, what do I mean when I say that everyday life is insulting, well I mean many things, and I’ll give some examples. I have three that I’ve collected, but there are millions.

1. The other day I was in an airplane in which there were three types of seats: first class, middle class (extra leg room) and coach. There weren’t many people on the flight and the stewardess gets on the audio system and asks the passengers who wanted to buy an upgrade for more legroom. The problem was that everyone had a lot of legroom because people could basically spread out over an entire row. Also, once the flight got started, there would be no reason to prevent people from going to the roomier seats up front. I mean, its fine if the airline wants to try to force people to pay for more room when the flight is packed, but now that we find ourselves on the flight and there’s no people, it seems silly to try and get people to pay for something that they don’t need and can get for free. This is a theme in this post, not best exemplified here, but you get the point, which is that people try to get you to do things that you know make no sense and that you don’t want to do. The other examples are better.

2. Advertising. You see a Coke commercial (I saw one the other day) that was trying to suggest that the viewer get one’s friends (or family, this was a very family-centric commercial) and just drink coke together because that was somehow wholesome. Again, this takes the form of suggestion, which in most situations is completely unobjectionable: you tell a friend visiting some city “hey, check out this bar” but of course commercials are missing this type of sincerity. It’s not exactly that they are lying (though this coke commercial got close because I remember having it make some reference to health, which obviously has nothing to do with their product), but more that its just so patronizing. And I’m not even against coke. Something tasting good is a reason to drink it, but as with almost every commercial, there is an attempt to make a suggestion that is obviously a disingenuous and patronizing attempt at thought control. In this same vein, and maybe this is the best case, are infomercials or just ordinary companies that try to sell you something that will plainly result in a loss in your welfare. So, self-help books, marriage insurance, or airplane ticket insurance, or maintenance insurance for hedge shears (offered to me at home depot). These types of insurance are a terrible deal for the consumer and often prey on the worst types of emotional impulses. As I’ve noted on this blog many times, capitalism works really well when people are self-possessed and confident — and I’ll say it — AUTONOMOUS agents pursuing their own flourishing. But we know that this assumptions breaks down in a real hurry and you find hucksters selling all sorts of SHIT that results in a loss to everyone (to society, and to the person buying it — I guess the person selling this shit still wins).

Why is this stuff insulting? Well because, at least I feel anyway, that it mocks our attempts to be autonomous and laughs in the face of our attempts to order our lives for good. These sorts of things pierce right through our ongoing struggle to build ourselves and seem to see if we’ll slip up this one time. “Do you want this piece of garbage” they seem to be saying, and the relentless proliferation of sources for this question (TV, magazine, internet, facebook, billboards, etc. etc.) is a type of mass insult perpetrated on a daily basis.

3. On facebook, I get all these friend requests lately from extremely attractive girls who have interests like “cheerleading” and “having fun” and other ridiculous shit, which I guess some (anyone?) gullible guys are really happy to have met someone so paradigmatically feminine. The thought of these thoughts on the part of complete strangers makes me want to take a nap out of pure depression. But put that aside. Here again, there is a wider source of incentives that organizes people to make passes at me to see when I’ll break down or act weakly or give in to despair. Am I happy that I’m “single” on facebook? Well not really, because it happens to correspond to the fact that I am actually single in real life. But these hordes of charlatans and who-knows-what (how would you even describe really attractive people who algorithmically friend less attractive people on a virtual gathering place of profiles, and interests?) strike at the very heart of what I like about myself and what I like about all people — which is the dignity that comes from trying to live life each day as best as possible. A cliche to be sure, but that little source of common dignity means a lot to me and these advertisements and faux-facebook-friendings strike right at the core, just like “fag” strikes right at the core of something that a gay person may value about him or herself (even if society doesn’t agree with that judgment).

What this leads into a more abstract lesson about society, which is that politeness still has a very powerful role to play in our lives (see this post that I’ve received some compliments on). Some people think that politeness is just a system of barely disguised hierarchically mandated reactions that grew out of 19th century victorian culture, but we shouldn’t be confused because some of the origins of politeness, as in “polite society” where just ways to exclude people.

Instead, I think we should understand that politeness is simply a way of launching a thousand soothing counteractions to the thousand barbed insults that our society hurls in our direction about our consumption, our clothes, our decisions, and our identity.

One thing my dad is really proud of is that for something like 25 years, he has greeted the security guard in his building with a smile and a hello. He sounds so happy when he explains this habit to me and he usually goes on to explain how all of the guards appreciate it and that one of the long time veterans and he share talk about basketball and other little chit chat. To me, this is really good, and the goodness of it is also present when someone says “excuse me,” or opens the door for someone, or just smiles at a pedestrian walking the other direction.

But there is further room for thought here, because if I’m right that everyday life is frequently “insulting” then why would politeness be the counter? The opposite of politeness is rudeness, not insulting-ness. Maybe rudeness should be assimilated to a type of insult? Not sure, but that wouldn’t be the worst result.



It’s My Life

The title of this song doesn’t really relate to this post, but the music video does — no I’m not talking about about the Gwen Stefani (?) version of this song. This is the real 80s version by a band called, repetitively enough, Talk Talk.

Also, I  haven’t written a post for like a week now, and the problem isn’t really lack of ideas: I have been accumulating them. The issue is that I have some philosophy stuff that I’m trying to make precise, and when I read and write about that stuff, I get kind of perfectionist and its hard for me to just put some provoking thoughts on paper in a haphazard way.

So I’ll try to do that now.

I’ve been reading a book by a woman named Temple Grandin, and her book, Animals in Translation, is for the most part worth reading, both because it corrects a bunch of prejudices I had about animals, and it makes some philosophical points about consciousness as well, as well as another extension I’ll mention.

Grandin is autistic, and this makes her perspective very interesting, and she positions herself (convincingly) as a kind of animal mystic. Indeed, she makes her living traveling to breeding farms, cattle ranches, slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and other places, all to improve the environment for the animals. Her goal is to make animals less stressed out in human made environments, and she works as what one could call an animal detective. She will show up at a ranch and the owner will say something like “the pigs are really stressed out and they’re biting each other” or “these cattle won’t walk into the feeding area so we have to tazer ’em to get ’em in there.” She then tries to find out what the problem is and usually solves it by notice a flapping piece of yellow cloth or a shadow created by the bars of the pen. In other words, she claims to be able to see the world in terms that animals see the world.

Tidbit — cattle guards work by playing off cow’s unique perception. To them, even painting lines on a road (not actually putting metal rods along the road as a grating) is enough to make them believe that there is a CLIFF there. They will not pass over them.

She ties this to a fascinating point about consciousness and perception, which is that in her mind, autistic people, because they have trouble with language and conversations, are a halfway point — at least in terms of consciousness — between animals and people. In her words, autistic people see the world in terms of pictures and not words. At some points Grandin speaks about her experience as one of being hyper aware of certain perceptual clues.

Animals she thinks must see the world as an extreme autistic person might, totally in terms of pictures and not in terms of words at all. As a philosopher would say, animals see the world NON-CONCEPTUALLY. She presses the analogy in an interesting direction when she brings up the idea of savants — autistic people who have many mental problems, but can perform some extremely complicated tasks with ease (such as solving large multiplication problems).

She thinks that animals may be savants of various types. Sharks would be hunting/eating savants, cats would be balancing/acrobatic savants and so  on. In other words, animals don’t have concepts to represent temporally or spatially distant or general ideas, but they do excel at solving certain experiential problems that present themselves in the environment, just as Dustin Hoffman can count the matches on the ground in Rain Man.

The analogy goes still deeper. Many autistic people  (according to Grandin anyway, and one problem with the book is that one isn’t sure which tidbits are scientifically based and which is anecdote or provocative suggestion. A lot of the stuff is scientifically backed) are hyper-aware, just as animals are. Grandin gives the mind-blowing story of a dyslexic friend who could hear the idling vibrations of nearby radios and so knew what programs were on WHEN THE RADIO WAS TURNED OFF. This friend would say “NPR is doing a show on lions” and then the radio would be turned on and that would be right.

So anyway, autistic people might be an incredibly useful halfway point for studying consciousness because it might allow us to unify data gleaned from animal behavior, and related it to a model of consciousness, as well as giving us insight into what aspects of HUMAN consciousness draws from animal perception of the world.

And as I promised, there are also just some bizarre and cool results about animal life that someone like me — animal hater that I am — had no idea about.

Apparently, elements communicate through ULTRA low moans that only other elephants can hear. They also probably communicate through stomping the ground and some hypothesize that elephants may have sonic receptors in their feet. WOW!

Other random stuff, like Monkeys have wars with each other, and dolphins are actually very vicious in the wild, killing young dolphins for sport and practicing gang rape.

Lastly, and this is pretty cool too, but mostly dog-people probably know this, is that dogs are neotanized wolves. In other words, dogs are just wolves who remain locked at a certain level of a maturity so that the most mature dog is still a juvenile wolf. One way of confirming this fact is that mature wolves have an aggression pattern called “the long stare” in which, as the name suggests, the wolf will stare down a rival. Dogs cannot perform this technique, EXCEPT for huskies which are genetically VERY similar to wolves. How sweet is that? I have to work on my long stare.

Last, predators don’t kill in rage. When they execute the “killing bite” (an extremely genetically scripted behavior), they are coldly carrying out a reflex. Animals do feel anger though, but only when in pain or when sparring with other members of their species. A lion snapping a gazelle’s neck feels nothing.


Running as Social Commentary

There isn’t much philosophy on eating, and that’s a shame (though very understandable), but there also isn’t much philosophy on running, but I recently found some, thanks to a buddy (thanks to either Jonathan or Paul, I don’t remember which.

In this TED talk, the speaker makes a bunch of fascinating empirical, descriptive points, and then some other more philosophical points. Ever eager to defend my intellectual turf (I’m actually not really interested in that garbage-game at all; read the preceding sentence as expressing sarcasm), I want to take issue with the philosophical issues after laying out the general structure of the empirical talk.

This guy (forgot his name) points to some specific things regarding running. One of them has to do with the recent craze in favor of wearing what I like to call “swamp man” shoes” but are really just those shoes that look like your feet. He talks about how his running pains went away when he put those types of shoes on, and I really don’t know how to evaluate his point that these shoes are superior except through a lot of anecdotes that I’ve collected. Many people swear by them but I’ve never had a problem with ordinary running shoes, though my dad did. One the one hand, it seems plausible to me that humans would run better if we would just run the way that nature intended us to run. After all, I think we are healthier when we eat the way nature intended us to eat. On the other hand though, its not ridiculous to think that some simple technology might help us run better, just as jackets help us stay warm better.

This guy also told the story of a recent marathon runner (don’t remember it either, but no big deal, I didn’t really get it to start with); a woman who won the race after hanging back to help a fellow runner. This is a really inspiring story, and it blew my mind to hear it, especially after hearing that doctors used to think that women who ran long distances would tear their uteruses apart under the stress. This really tells you a lot about how ideology can influence even supposedly purely “scientific” pursuits.

Also, women are really good distance runners, and very close to as fast as men. This is in sharp contrast to women sprinters who are much slower then men.

Then the normative, ethical theorizing begins when the speaker says that our running capability is tied up with what makes a good society. He points to a small group of Natives living in Mexico who often run hundreds of miles each day and flourish in their social organization. He makes them out to have a kind of paradise-like existence and he suggests that running is a big contributor. In a word, he suggest that we should become a running culture as a way of enhancing feelings of community, physical fitness, and everything else. Everybody should get those swamp man shoes.

The argument in favor of this utopianism though is pretty poor. For one thing, his argument is that groups of Savannah stalking humans had to work together tightly in order to slowly wear out and run down prey animals over long periods of time (apparently humans are great at running forever and ever even though slow for short distance). Also, he surmises that since the “hunt” would range over miles and miles, the women, even pregnant women, had to be able to run to keep up to get the kill right when it was brought down.

There are a bunch of problems here, one being that his explanations for the goodness of social organizations based around long distance running are pretty general, and available to just about any evolutionary story. He says “well, people have to cooperate to run down prey over long distances.” Ok yea sure, but people have to cooperate to use agriculture, they have to cooperate to avoid natural disasters, and cooperate to resist invaders and other people.

Also, his theory doesn’t explain why men are such better sprinters. Everyone can run long distances so that we can bring down prey. Ok fine, but then why would it matter if one sex could sprint must faster than the other. Probably for an evolutionary reason…

Also, there are many inspiring sports stories that don’t have to do with running. Just a few Olympics ago, one skiier tossed his ski pole to a competitor so he could finish. There are probably a million others. So maybe running isn’t the key to unlocking all our special human capacities.

Lastly, I think its important to remember why we don’t run around trying to kill our food, and I’m not even referring to the ease that we can get things these days. I just mean that those societies requiring everyone to run around all the time probably had no place for people with polio, or broke their bones beyond repair. I mean, I’m sure those societies tried to keep those injured members alive, but nowadays, injured people can more fully participate in society because we need more things and more skills. For example, the federal government buys a bunch of products from blind people who manufacture them. Our technology allows these people to be set up in such a way as to utilize skills that others can take advantage of.

To put it another way, we moved past running down prey (as cool as that is) because we have new commitments like moral equality, respect for persons, and the importance of participating in a common community.

Also, it’s not like a culture of agriculture or whatever doesn’t have special community values of its own.