Exploring the Post-Rational 21st Century

What this Blog Is All About

When Adam Smith wrote that butchers, brewers and bakers worked efficiently out of ``regard for their own interest,'' he was doing more than asserting that self-interest could be good. He was also asserting that self-interest -- a long-lasting, fact-based, explicit sense of ``what's good for me'' -- is possible. His Enlightenment-era model of the mind helped spawn Rational Economic Man, that being who is supposed to consciously and consistently perceive his own needs and wants, relate those to possible actions, reason his way through the options, and then act according to those calculations.

Rational Economic Man has taken quite an intellectual beating since certain financial events that I don't need to rehearse here. But it (it's not really a he, is it?) remains the basis for all the important institutions of society, from courts (where we assume that judges and juries can think ``objectively'' about a case) to medicine (where people are supposed to choose clearly among scientifically-tested options for treatment to elections (where voters are presumed to be weighing ``the issues'' and picking the candidate who best fits their interests. It is because we are supposed to be rational that governments guarantee our human rights: To be enlightened, Immanuel Kant explained, one must ``use one's understanding without guidance,'' and this is impossible without freedom of speech and of thought. The presumption that we're rational -- at least when we're at our best and most human -- is the glue that holds global society together.


That's probably why we 21st-century people have such respect for science (so important in our culture that even people who hate science's version of the world feel obligated to use its language, referring not to ``creation'' but ``creation science'' when they want to deny evolution). Science is, after all, the ultimate collection of methods for creating knowledge by rational means.

It's ironic, then -- historically, colossally ironic -- that science is killing off Rational Economic Man. But it is: The data comes from ``hard'' sciences, from social science, and often from novel combinations of the two, like neuromarketing and neuroeconomics. Some of these fields are more rigorous and prestigious than others, but in they're all using the same fundamental method -- data-based, systematic, value-neutral -- to investigate the mind. And in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, social psychology, neurobiology, marketing studies, economics and many other disciplines, the scientific method is revealing that Rational Economic Man is indefensible, misguided and wrong.

Of course, no one ever claimed that human beings were purely reasoning robots. But rationality was supposed to capture the essential facts of people's behavior, with the mess of emotion and influence relegated to a cabinet of anecdotes and oddities. Today, though, evidence is pouring in that in real life, the moments of explicit, logical calculation are the oddities. We aren't good at stating our reasons for our actions, it seems, because most of the causes of our behavior are outside our awareness. And the rules that govern there aren't those of logic.

People's perceptions and choices are governed instead by innate predispositions (which tell us that an 80 percent success rate is a good bet but that a 1 in 5 failure rate is too risky, even though logically those are the same). People are highly subject to their sense of status and the responses of other people; that we're often moved by incidental, irrelevant perceptions when we make decisions. And our supposedly well-pondered individual decisions can often be predicted by tools of analysis that don't see individuals at all, instead detecting patterns across time. What becomes of our assumptions about rational medicine when, as Dan Ariely showed, the same pills reduce pain more when patients think they're expensive than when they think the medicine is cheap? What theory of democracy can live with the knowledge that people can pick the winners of unknown elections just by looking at the faces of the candidates? Or that people are more likely to vote to raise education taxes if they happen to be casting ballots in a school than in a firehouse? And how are trials supposed to be conducted when we know how easily ``eyewitnesses'' can be persuaded to see and unsee things.

I think the science of human behavior has entered the post-rational era. And that's what this blog is about: Why people perceive, feel, think and act as they do, and the gaps between what research says and what we think. I'm especially interested in where such knowledge leaves the institutions that we live by.

So ``Mind Matters,'' as I see it, include fMRI studies on why people buy stuff; arguments about how perceptions of Vietnam shape policies in Afghanistan; the contrast between what ``everybody knows'' and what real research finds -- and many other subjects that tell us we shouldn't ever be satisfied to say ``we know this.'' Because to really know anything, you have to understand how you know it.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.