Tag Archives: sociology

The Genetic Killer

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

Another proposed “solution” to the mass shootings in America is sure to upset many camps; privacy advocates, mental health care advocates, and even those calling for the heads of the murderers. Soon we will have the results of genetic analysis of Adam Lanza, which may be used by scientists to model genetic predispositions of violence, or by defense attorneys in their pleas. This controversial science is being criticized from all sides, condemned as “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”

via Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks:

But the request to analyse the DNA of Lanza is just the latest in a long line of attempts to account for the behaviour of individual killers in terms of genetics.

Perhaps the first attempt was for a case that bears more than a surface resemblance to the Sandy Hook shooting. In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student called Kip Kinkel killed both of his parents before driving to school and shooting 24 students, one of whom died.

In his trial a child psychiatrist argued that Kinkel had “genetic loading” that made him susceptible to mental illness and violence.

His appeal also relied upon this angle. His lawyer argued that “owing to a genetic predisposition, and therefore through no conscious fault of his own, the defendant suffers a mental illness resulting in committing his crimes.”

Perhaps for the first in decades, an appeal to genetics was used in an attempt to explain the killer’s behaviour.

The genetic arguments became more sophisticated with the trial of serial killer Cary Stayner where a psychiatrist and geneticist presented a genealogy of the his family showing how mental illness and violence ‘ran through the family’.

By the time of the trial of murderer Stephen Mobley, the defence based part of their case on molecular genetics – suggesting that Mobley had a version of the MAOA gene that made him susceptible to violence.

It’s worth noting that none of these appeals to genetics have been successful in the courtroom but it’s interesting that in light of the tragic events in Sandy Hook there has been, yet again, a look towards genetics to try and make sense of the killer – this time presumably based on the yet more advanced technology of whole DNA sequencing.

On this occasion, however, the reasons seems less related to issues of legal responsibility and more for scientific motivations, supposedly to better understand the ‘DNA of a killer’.

As the Nature editorial makes clear, this is foolish: “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

There is a valuable science of understanding how genetics influences violent behaviour but analysis of individual killers will tell us very little about their motivations.

It does, however, reflect a desire to find something different in people who commit appalling crimes. Something that is comprehensible but distinct, alien but identifiable.

This may give us comfort, but it does little to provide answers. In the midst of tragedy, however, the two can easily be confused.

While I have mulled the utility of psychopathy testing before (mostly to weed out serial killers and white-collar criminals), I certainly don’t want to demonize mental illness. I also don’t want to see this turned into a genetic witchhunt, with public registries that would affect hiring, insurance rates, or result in other forms of discrimination or revocation of rights. Not only is it unknown for sure if Adam Lanza (or even James Holmes, for that matter) suffered from mental illness or disorder, but depending on the definitions, as many as 1-in-4 Americans might fall into this camp. This framing also narrowly and unfairly decides what is “normative,” always a dangerous proposition for society.

This sort of ‘registration’ might end up much worse for our liberty and democracy than any gun registration, by orders of magnitude. Especially if, as indicated by our elected leaders and the NRA, we are more concerned with tracking and banning these individuals than providing resources and help.

It sets a scary precedent, but it is also the observable evidence-based realm of science. Should we even go there? What do you think?

Read the artice in Nature, and follow Mind Hacks for more in-depth analysis of complex psychological and neurological issues.

Advertisements

Ayn Rand vs. the Natural Evolution of Human Altruism

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

The natural history of mankind’s development seems to differ greatly with the psychopathic philosophy of Ayn Rand, a ‘virtue of selfishness’ in which her heroes, such as John Galt, strive for their individual supremacy and autonomy over a collective view of public good. The fact that anthropological evidence refutes her premises would hardly have deterred Rand, who referred to the “primordial savages” of the world, “unable to conceive of individual rights.” As if the rights of individuals are mutually exclusive from such goals as sharing, or showing compassion, working in tandem or exercising a collective group intelligence (with a social awareness) to meet goals.

Indeed, Ayn Rand framed her moral arguments as if the individualists were the persecuted minority, using drastic examples like Stalinist Russia to make her invective criticisms of much more centrist or moderate positions, while ignoring the rich history of robber barons, feudal states and serfdoms. Unfortunately for her, it is not only history, philosophy, culture and economics that have shown her to be wrong, but science as well.

 writes in Slate:

Christopher Boehm has been studying the interplay between the desires of an individual and that of the larger group for more than 40 years. Currently the director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, he has conducted fieldwork with both human and nonhuman primates and has published more than 60 scholarly articles and books on the problem of altruism. In his newest book, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, Boehm synthesizes this research to address the question of why, out of all the social primates, are humans so altruistic?

“There are two ways of trying to create a good life,” Boehm states. “One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue.” Boehm’s theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate” (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.

What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group (as in the case of Cephu).

What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. “Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band’s decision process,” Boehm writes, “and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations.” A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).

Sometimes gossip is not enough to reduce or eliminate antisocial behavior. In Boehm’s analysis of LPA societies, public opinion and spatial distancing were the most common responses to misbehavior (100 percent of the societies coded). But other tactics included permanent expulsion (40 percent), group shaming (60 percent), group-sponsored execution (70 percent), or nonlethal physical punishment (90 percent). In the case of expulsion or execution, the result over time would be that traits promoting antisocial behavior would be reduced in the populations. In other words, the effect of social selection would be that altruists would have higher overall fitness and out-reproduce free riders. The biological basis for morality in our species could therefore result from these positive and negative pressures carried out generation after generation among our Pleistocene ancestors. Who is John Galt? He refused to participate in society and no one has seen him since.

And it seems that altruistic humankind are not the only primates offended by cheating; earlier this month we saw how Capuchin monkeys respond to unequal pay. So while I’m not advocating public executions or exile, perhaps we should utilize more gossip, bad publicity and group shaming against the ruling elite classes who for far too long have existed in a bubble of their ‘virtuous selfishness.’

When does fucking the system cross over?

Is it better to be Stephen Cooper, and steal your money in obfuscated, technically legal ways hidden behind corporate espionage and litigation? Or D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane, extorted hundred of thousands, and leapt into the sky with a parachute and much badassery, never to be seen again? When does fucking the system cross over from skullduggery to douchebaggery?

This debate can be seen on the political stage between left and right, and even within the debates for the GOP nomination. More and more, the elite are attempting to distance themselves from their unpopular corporatist takeover, while still retaining their record-level greed and avarice. Within the movements of the left, the debate rages on protest methodology and ethics. Many hacktivists are ready to embrace the Robin Hood image, while others simply fight for privacy and liberty, others greedily attempt to get rich as unethically as big banking cheats, and others still just want to watch the world burn. Clearly, written in the faces of the police who clash with protestors, the conflict is very real and very painful. Most of us (except for wealthy policy-making plutocrats) did not have much choice in our positions, socio-economically, politically, or in some cases perhaps even ethically.

Guy DeBord’s Situationalism (which I have studied for years… on Wikipedia) tells us that each generation is in a futile cycle, in which is rises up against the entrenched dominant patriarchy, reclaiming their language and symbols as their own in the social battle, eventually doomed to grow up and become what they hate, usurping and claiming the language and symbols of the young in their corporatist regime. We saw some social, sexual, secular and popular culture advantages to DeBord’s revolution of the 1960’s, but many of those counterculture types sold out and got white-collar jobs, and many of their progressively populist politicians now accept tremendous bribes. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as the old saying goes. This is also known in tropes as ‘the Bad Guys Won.”

And how well do you have to know thine enemy, before you become what you hate most. “We’re not so different, you and I.

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French Revolutionary, a capable articulator of the beliefs of the left-wing bourgeoisie. He was described as being physically unimposing yet immaculate in attire and personal manners. His supporters called him “The Incorruptible”, and although originally inspired by liberal Enlightenment ideals, his adversaries called him dictateur sanguinaire (bloodthirsty dictator). He was instrumental in the implementation of the Reign of Terror, which ultimately ended with his arrest and execution in 1794.

The Republicans are already writing their history books referring to the Occupy movement as “a bunch of goddamned chumps.” When I call back East and South to my conservative friends and family for the holidays, I discover a range of opinions and ‘facts’* ** mostly absorbed from FOX “News” and Glenn Beck. According to them, the “99%” is an unnecessarily divisive scheme of class warfare. Occupiers are lazy, unemployed, and probably on the take. Unemployed people just chose to be. They think that ten percent of the country would rather be on food stamps than find gainful unemployment. The Occupy movement has no clear message, and Anonymous are more than likely terrorists. Their criticisms (legit, illegit, and 2 legit 2 quit), can be easily countered with a few minutes of internet research, or by the shifting focus of Occupations around the country and globe to focus on and vocalize specific issues of economic injustice and income inequality. They are not, despite the false rhetoric, socialists and anarchists, though a radically inclusive movement is bound to have those, as well as gang members and hacktivists. The majority are people who have been disenfranchised both financially and emotionally from the democratic process, at a rate equally proportionate to the eroding of our democracy by corporate lobbying and tax fraud politicians. Many of their key themes, like it or not, are in keeping with the populist Tea Party movement. Occupy has singled out targets of protest, and Anonymous has clearly been keeping a list of individuals and organizations for cyber attack.

The claims that Occupy and others are being ‘bought off’, or on somebody’s ‘payroll’, or as one (particularly absurd) flyer posited, a ‘George Soros Psy-Op’, are patently false. Will it remain so in the future? Though the movement is sometimes split (by its very nature), on how to utilize its collective funds, it is even more contentious when nonviolent resistance resolutions have been adopted. Will these displays of respectful civil disobedience and rational discourse prevail? Or will they eventually be overshadowed by riots, destruction of property, graffiti and cop hatred? Historically, the argument could be made for either approach as more successful. When does it cross over?

The GOP candidates (not including Ron Paul, but there are other issues with him) all seem to be in perfect step with their corporate sponsors and overlords, seeing the proletariat uprising with chagrin, concern, or panic. Having gotten away with so many crimes, they cannot stand to allow the energetic movement to shift the country’s dialogue to the left, or even back into rational democratic debate. The attempts to lift the veil, in of themselves, are as dangerous to the prestidigitatious status quo as jihadist terrorism or communist invasion. So they equate them all using their media powers. They have been fucking them system bloody for so long now, it can be said that any young group is, by default, cast into the role of Robin Hood. That is, unless the system is so very fucked beyond any hope.

And if that is the case, then their runaway train wreck will take the elitists out with it. As journalist Chris Hedges points out, protest movements reach their tipping point when the enforcers (police, military, security) have a crisis of faith and either join the protestors, or cease protecting the elite. Even top military brass are saying that our networks are indefensible.

The inevitability of failure is clear to this ridiculous regime against consumer needs and an middle class class to succor. American love good underdogs, and will take notice once issues begin to directly affect them, especially where  civil liberty and privacy are concerned. Many of the technological threats from the oligarchy are hollow and laughable, with hacktivists ready to take down infrastructures, a deep net of both criminals and innocent privacy-seekers, and readying domestic right wing militias gone unchecked for decades. How will the 1% sustain themselves when the police switch sides, when the cities crumble, and when the serf class they were brainwashing riots in the streets for food, medicine, and pay cable? It is not the mainstream news, or Washington, or Wall Street who ultimately decides. It is not even the various fringe or voluminous protest movements. When the average and usually disconnected American casts their public opinions, that is when change will be forced, that is when the snowball cannot be stopped, and that is when the sides will be defined for the history books.

When does fucking the system cross over? As Robespierre found out, when total madness ensues, and everybody loses their heads.

*”Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, nobody is entitled to their own facts.”

**”You know what they say about opinions… everybody’s got one!”

X-mas Rated

Remove yourself from it for a few years (or work retail) and it begins to look very absurd, indeed.

Full of odd tropes, so many that it seems every single thing in the world has a Christmas version, every television show, series of toys, comics, characters, discography, magazine, aesthetic changes for a few months in service of tradition careening out of control more and more each year.

There are Santa prons, there holiday specials, and even the Japanese (for which less than 1% of the population are Christian) can go absolutely bonkers for the holiday.

For Christ’s sake, ham becomes ‘Christmas ham.’

These themes pervade such as; ‘this is going to be the best Christmas ever,’ ‘this is a very special Christmas,’ ‘the last Christmas, the very last Christmas,’ ‘Christmas is in danger!’, ‘we need to save Christmas!’ ‘the Miracle of Christmas!’ And not merely in fiction, but IRL as well.

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics decry the commercialism of the holiday, even going back nearly a hundred years. It is not merely the Grinch, Scrooge, or any other of a countless nefarious foe out to eradicate the holiday with a push of a button, but marketing departments, conglomerates, thieves, cheats, secularists and competing religious/philosophical worldviews.

For some such as myself, the holiday has no real meaning, nothing that the warmth of family, friends, and community cannot provide on other holidays or year round. A pleasant nostalgia that could also be served by watching TMNT or playing NES. Part of the absurdity I find in the fanaticism of Christmas stems from the seemingly arbitrariness of choosing this particular holiday. Why not St. Patrick’s Day? Or Easter? The madness associated with Halloween is fun and outrageous (and now exported to every part of the globe), but on no such scale as the industrious and brobdignagian Christmas.

Even allowing the synthesis of a long-running Christian dominance over Western society (and later the world) with strong pagan roots, I’m amazed at the incredible surge of ‘meaning’ that appears to have historically manifested in the last couple centuries. Almost as if Christmas is quickening towards some kind of ‘holiday singularity’. The corporatization aside, even the larger celebrated secular Christmas tradition looms large over society, literally enveloping a quarter of the year. Fair-weather Christians attend church on this day, and people who profess no kinship to friends and families may buy gifts or cards out of misplaced obligation. Children and indeed adults pretend to be ‘extra special good’ in the weeks leading up to Santa and also Christ’s arrival. Acts of madness ensue in mall parking lots. A mini-apocalypse, since Christians known not the time of his return, but do know his birthday.

Every musical artist ‘worth their salt’ has to release multiple Christmas tracks, sometimes part of a compilation with others, often an entire album or two of their own. The majority are covers of what are now considered ‘holiday standards,’ enough to fill entire radio stations for months. Others compose their own holiday ballads, in the hopes of making it their own repulsive standard, and in fact may later be covered themselves.

If you stop to consider, there is an entire genre of music that is only popularly played during one time of the year, and you probably know most of the lyrics.

And when I think of the number of Christmas songs performed by Frank Sinatra, I can also mull over the many years of Christmas experiences the Chairman may have himself had, filled with joy, sorrow, loss, togetherness, loneliness, prosperity, charity, or bitterness. His experiences, both good and bad, are like all of ours, and more or less contribute to the shared cultural phenomenon doomed to repeat each and every year.

For you see, you can’t really remove yourself from the season at all. It is in you.

Christmas for many is religious, or nonsecular, or secular, or commercial, or a state of deep depression. I don’t mind the fetishism of the day and its symbols and themes, even if it has been fully taken over by mass consumerism and capitalist scheming. I don’t even necessarily mind that it is overtaking Thanksgiving and Halloween, though many do, and those days should certainly be observed for their own intrinsic kickass nature. Christmas itself, for a period of each year at least, becomes a religion unto itself. We worship with our pocketbooks. By our consumption of holiday treats and the same old movie classics.

There are those who, regardless of their spiritual nature, idolize and glorify Christmas, despite the number of atrocities that occur during the month. There are those that get depressed, as suicide rates rise (myth) and crimes increase. More break-ups occur in November through January, attesting perhaps to our inner cheapness. So why give in to it at all? Why bother being so upset and lonely, simply because society is emphasizing the special romantic togetherness that others have? Just boycott and ignore it.

‘The true meaning of Christmas‘, itself an overused trope, has been alternately defined by everyone from Tiny Tim and Linus to Ernest and John Lennon. And the downright freaky.

In posing this question to others, I received several theories. The evolution of Christmas, from romantic prose and Germanic saintly gift-giving, the search for a proper holiday mascot, and the formulaic standardization of Santa Claus by Coca-Cola and Norman Rockwell, has been one long growing culture of capitalizing on such heavy heartstrings. Others have suggested that we are more susceptible due to our winter blues, cabin fever, the wistful changing of the seasons and yes, the end of our very calendar system. The need to share warm food and family unity, much like Thanksgiving, harkening back to our harsh harvesting days. Another pointed out that the advertising and sales push is driven by the year-end audit, the taxable stock, and need for final quarterly revenues in the black.

Capitalism has certainly latched onto this endless cycle of tropes and dogma, ignoring that Santa himself doesn’t make or spend money, we all remember that the very first Christmas gifts were very expensive indeed; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even the message of Rudolph is clear: your peers will have no respect or value for you unless your uniqueness provides some basic utility to the employer. This year, Best Buy actually looks to actually out-do Santa Claus.

Which begs another question, of not just why Christmas, or why not some other holiday, or why anything at all, but why not all year-round? The parallel dimension of all-year Christmas may look frantic, insane with shoppers and muggers, and surprise military attacks and shady legislation, wars still fought and the rich getting richer, but would also be a world with consistently impressive tips, donations, charity, the ostracizing of Scroogely misers, kindness to children, brotherhood and understanding to people around the world, and that most lovable absurdity of all; gift-giving.

And what of the universe with no Christmas at all? Would they miss it? Would some other institution inevitable take its place around some other holiday, or destined to be near the cold, wintry end of the year regardless? So necessary and ingrained in us that no Twilight Zone trickery could remove it?

Christmas permeates every thing, there is no escape, easily 1/12th to 1/4 of our lives is Christmas. And if one wished to, one could use decorations and sites of the internet (because why bother taking any of them down?) to celebrate all year.

I guess it doesn’t matter. You can celebrate in whatever way you want, even if that means deliberate boycott, solitary solemn worship, family reunion, or all-out spending spree. You can have no regard at all for the day but still relish the excuse to give gifts. It means many different things to many different people, and that even includes complete apathy.

As with everything, I advise not wasting any of your vitriol on the holiday season. Christmas hatred is perhaps the worst absurdity of all.

Calvin presents 'Pascal's Christmas Wager'

“I will stop taking Christ out of Christmas is you stop taking Thor out of Thursday.”