The Lightbulb Issue. Illuminating the Risk of Ideology

     The bulb wars burn brightly on. The members of the U.S. House who represent people for whom anti-government ideology burns more brightly than common sense have come back from a defeat earlier in the week to deny government funding for making light bulbs more efficient. On the facts of the issue the decision seems pretty dim. Incandescent bulbs waste 90% of the electricity they use on heat, not light. Which seems like a good metaphor for the  rhetoric on the issue. But there is something really illuminating about this whole matter. It's a perfect microcosm of a serious and destructive trend in the United States, the polarization of practically anything, by ALL sides on many issues. And the bulb wars brightly illustrate how  the Theory of Cultural Cognition helps explain this phenomenon, and even offers a bit of hope. By understanding the roots of this contentiousness, we might get beyond it, regain the ability to listen and compromise, and make progress.

     As government mandates go the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (which requires other seemingly non-partisan ideas like better motor vehicle fuel economy and energy conservation in buildings), is pretty flexible. Congress thought it would be wise to require that light bulbs, any type of light bulbs, be 25 percent more efficient by 2014. That’s about as non-ideological as you could get, right? But somehow that turned into "I don't think anybody elected their congressmen or senator to tell them what light bulb to buy," according to Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, who authored a Texas law exempting that state from the federal efficiency rules. Or this, from Rep. Barton (he’s the guy from great/oil state of Texas who thought the federal government should apologize to BP during the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) about the defeat of his bulb bill; “This vote clearly shows which party is for bigger federal government involvement in people’s daily lives and which is for consumer choice. Why in the world should the federal government tell people what kind of lights they can buy for their homes?”

     Here’s a more important question. Why in the world is this an issue of choice? Why did the most common sense idea you could think of become yet another tribal warfare issue? Here’s why, according to the Theory of Cultural Cognition. Though we argue our positions about the issues of the day based on the facts, those positions are actually chosen, subconsciously, so they agree with the views of the groups with which we most strongly identify. Those groups are defined by some deep underlying worldviews about how we want society to operate. Cultural Cognition posits four basic group worldviews, along two continua;

                                          Individualist ------   ------- Communitarian

                                             Hierarchist ------   ------- Egalitarian.

      Individualists prefer a society that mostly leaves the individual alone. “The Tea Party”, or “Libertarian”… those are just labels for “Live Free or Die” people who support a “don’t tell me what light bulb to buy” society. Their positions on light bulb choice are actually shaped by that underlying worldview. On the other end of the spectrum, Communitarians prefer a “we’re all in this together” society where the collective is more involved in determining how things go, a society that  together solves problems in the name of the common good, like reducing our dependence on foreign oil or cutting air pollution from wasteful burning of coal to make electricity, basic good ideas we can’t accomplish as individuals. Like Individualists, Communitarian views on specific issues are shaped to support their preferred sort of society.

     Hierarchists prefer a societal structure with a clear rigid hierarchy of power and fixed class and race and economic divisions, where the status quo and the old reliable way of doing things rule. They don’t like government regulations butting in and shaking things up. Politically, Hierarchists are conservative Republicans. Egalitarians bristle at the restrictions and injustice of economic class and rigid social hierarchy. They want a more flexible society, and support more regulations intended to level the playing field and make things fairer. These folks are mostly liberal Democrats.

            Cultural Cognition research has found that these basic underlying views about  the way society should operate powerfully shape our views on the specific issues of the day. We want our views to conform to those with whom we most identify, because that enhances our group’s dominance in the overall society, and it enhances our group’s acceptance of us as members in good standing. (This would explain why Texas Republican Fred Upton, who originally helped write the light bulb efficiency rules, now opposes them…because the issue has been made a lithmus test for anyone, like Upton, who wants to be accepted as a member of the tribe known as ‘conservative’.)

            This social cohesion is a powerful motivator. As social animals, we depend on our groups for our well-being and our very survival. So the imperative to conform our views to those of our group is strong…all the moreso the more threatened and unsettled we feel - by troubling economic times, or environmental threats, or terrorism, or crime, or all of the above. Threat brings the tribe closer together. It enhances social cohesion in the name of self-protection.

            This goes a long way toward explaining the vitriolic polarization impeding progress in America today, on the debt ceiling, or climate change, or so many other issues. The more threatened and challenged we feel - and these are certainly troubled times -  the more we circle the wagons, and the more we divide ourselves. Which threatens us all. It’s like we’re herds of animals, stampeding along in separate defensive groups so nervously focused on the other competing groups that we can’t see the cliff  toward which we’re all heading. In the instinctive pursuit of the safety of social cohesion, we’re endangering ourselves in the process.

     But we’re not just instinctive animals. We also reason. We have the unique capacity of self-awareness. So perhaps the light from this light bulb nonsense can illuminate the Cultural Cognition phenomenon and, also in the name of health and safety,  encourage us to consider more carefully how these primal divisions impair our ability to find mutually acceptable solutions to problems that threaten us all.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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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.