Sunday, November 20, 2005

Curiosity and Triage

Is it a bad thing to quarantine the Third World and let their local populations live as they will while we outside live? If we in the Modern world continue to build fences to keep out the losers in life's race to survive and excel, fences such as those in Israel and Spanish Morocco, even the proposed fence across the U.S. -Mexican border, are we morally wrong to do so? The truth in practice is that if we do not continuously rescue the Third World people from themselves they will certainly die, starving to death within a month of the Modern world cutting off foreign aid to feed them, for example. Is that a bad thing?

Many Third World people are primitive and incapable of adapting to Modernity, even after generations of living in the West, as we see in Europe among Muslim populations there. If we were to deport them to the Muslim world, would it be wrong to do so if they otherwise pose a grave and immediate threat to our continued survival as settled nations and cultures? If, as seems to be true, Muslims are intent on destroying Modernity in the West, should we rid ourselves of their presence and live without them? They will certainly die without us. Third World people have bred themselves well beyond the point of immiseration, and given that they are mostly hunter -gatherers and subsistence farmers, they cannot continue to survive physically without Modernity's aid. In the case of Muslims, they also want to kill us, enslave the survivors, and rule the world under a restored Caliphate governing by sharia. Should we pay for that? Should we let them live by their own devices even though they cannot because they have too many people to live by their own means?

We face an odd choice: if we continue to feed the overpopulated Third World populations as they are and continue to be by choice, they will continue to expand their populations, making our burden greater in feeding them. We in the West can probably do so indefinitely given our resources and resourcefulness. As they continue to multiply and as we continue to decrease in population, they will eventually be the majority in the West, and then, being those the Third World depend on for food, the lot of them will die because the primitives in the West are incapable of contributing to their own welfare even here. In short, everybody dies.

If we divide the world by fencing out the primitives, they'll continue to overpopulate anyway, and they will die if we don't pour food over the fences. We face a scenario in which the hated Social Darwinism of the 19th century becomes the ruling ethos of Modernity, and it could well be damned popular in certain circles.

Do we really face the dilemmas of either/or? Do we feed them or let them starve? Do we fence them out or become over-run? Do we appease them and die out, or do we quarantine them and let them die?

Muslims are out of control, and they are determined to kill and destroy and ruin till they stand at the summit of a rubbish heap that was the Modern world. We can mouth sentimentalities till we choke but the reality is that Islam is flush with cash and violent rage, and they are here and more are coming. They will destroy our Modernity because our Modernity is an offense to them. From the viewpoint of the Irrationalist primitive it makes the only good sense there can be. For the rest of us we must wonder what we should do to deal with this, if we do anything at all.

Below we have three excerpts from Steven Dutch, geology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. He writes here on curiousity.

Are Humans Innately Creative?

Is curiosity and creativity a general hallmark of humans? The fact that we remained anatomically modern but never advanced technologically beyond the hunter-gatherer level for thousands of years doesn't inspire much optimism. The best treatment of how humans developed technology is Jared Diamond's outstanding synthesis of history and environmental science, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond tries at every juncture to show that differences between cultures and their technology are driven by environmental and geographic factors, and not by differences in the people themselves. He strives to go beyond immediate circumstances ("proximate causes") to what he terms "ultimate causes," which he regards as rooted in the environment. For example, the proximate cause of the Spanish Conquest was Spanish superiority in weapons and armor, but the ultimate cause was that Eurasia was blessed with a variety of environmental factors that enabled technology to get a long head start in Eurasia. However, close scrutiny shows that many of his causes aren't as ultimate as they seem.

Take Diamond's account of writing. The earliest writing is crude shorthand for keeping accounts, limited to numbers and concrete concepts. Obviously, writing must have developed after settled agriculture made it necessary to start keeping track of accounts. It took centuries for writing to evolve to the point of being able to express complex ideas. So, in Diamond's view, one ultimate cause of Eurasian technological power is a variety of environmental and biological factors that made Eurasia particularly favorable for agriculture, hence the rise of writing and complex societies.

Why? If humans are inveterate tinkerers (as they are) and if hunter-gatherers have an encyclopedic knowledge of their environment (as they do), why did writing have to wait for settled agriculture? Surely many groups must have experienced the loss of a key member who died, taking important knowledge with him. Surely many groups must have faced the problem of communicating among scattered members, where it might have been nice to tell a hunting party "we were attacked and had to move - here's the new campsite." There was no lack of reasons to develop writing before agriculture. The lack of a permanent site should not have been an obstacle. Very few groups were so completely nomadic that they never returned to the same place, so almost every group should have known of protected sites within their normal range where they could have stored written records. Maybe some of the thousands of petroglyphs around the world did in fact serve for communication. But the question is nagging - if humans are really as creative and curious as we like to believe, why didn't they develop an ability to record abstract ideas simply for its own sake, instead of starting off with a very narrow and utilitarian approach to writing?

Even more nagging, Diamond refers in many places to the idea that some societies are more receptive to innovation that others, and those societies tend to surpass their neighbors and thrive. But he misses the ultimate "ultimate cause." If humans really are innately curious and creative, why should there be any individuals - much less entire societies - who resist innovation?

Tinkering Versus Creativity

Many of the people who would bristle at these comments would not hesitate to pour scorn on Thomas Kinkade's paintings, which are all variations on a few basic themes. Although these paintings are "creative" in the sense of all being different in detail and incorporating new elements from time to time, the creativity is of a very low order.

Similarly, Jared Diamond admires the hunter-gatherers he knows from New Guinea, noting that whenever they travel to a new area, they note new plants and sometimes dig them up to transplant at home. But what they are doing is simply a variation on a theme they already know well. He doesn't cite any cases of anyone wondering why certain plants grow in some places but not others, or wondering how a seed develops into a plant.

In his chapter "Necessity's Mother," Diamond argues that most inventions arose from initially useless discoveries produced by constant tinkering. (This chapter is the weakest in his whole book. It's full of nagging minor errors, omissions, and misconceptions that made me wonder how many similar faults are lurking elsewhere that I didn't catch because the chapters are outside my expertise. For example, he cites early internal combustion engines as being unsuitable for automobiles, apparently unaware that the first internal combustion engines were intended as stationary power sources running off piped gas.)

It is useful, however, to distinguish between tinkering and creativity. Tinkering consists of exploring relatively minor variations on known themes, or subjecting new stimuli to an array of already known techniques. Thomas Kinkade rarely creates and mostly tinkers. Babies tinker constantly. They put every new object in their mouth. Eventually they figure out that most things are not good to eat. When they develop motor control, they throw things. Serious curiosity consists of actively seeking new kinds of stimuli. Creativity consists of juxtaposing objects and ideas in new ways, and having a sound intuition for separating the significant result from the trivial.

Even the most creative people spend most of their time tinkering. That's probably a hallmark of real creativity - a restless curiosity. Noncurious people tinker only occasionally and with only short-range goals in mind. (They pay for it. I once visited a man who spent the entire time lamenting how miserable his life had been and how lonely he was. I looked around the house and saw not a single book or any sign of a hobby. No wonder he was miserable, and lonely too. Who would want to spend time with such a person?) The creative person's constant tinkering first of all yields lots of unexpected insights, and second sharpens the ability to recognize potentially significant new results.

Now we can address the contention that children are innately curious. They are not in the sense used here - they are tinkerers. The commonplace observation that children have short attention spans is direct refutation of the notion that they are creative and curious in any deep sense. The tragedy of our society is not that so many people outgrow their childlike curiosity, but that so few do. The adult equivalent of childlike curiosity is channel surfing and the ten-second sound bite.

Mozart was one of the most creative individuals who ever lived. I have a record of his greatest hits and the striking thing is that all the pieces are completely different. Mozart composed music at age three, but none of his juvenile pieces are played today except as musical curiosities. His juvenile pieces are variations on existing patterns. As a child, he was a tinkerer. A very bright one, to be sure - he was Mozart after all - but still only a tinkerer. His adult creativity vastly exceeded his creativity as a child, and even as an adult, his last few years vastly outshone his earlier period. We also should note that his childhood achievements were hyped, and in some cases assisted, by his father.

Most of what passes for "creativity" in children is actually ultra-linear thinking. It seems creative only because it's incongruous, and it's incongruous because it's so literal that not even the dullest adult would reason that way. The old joke about a child who asks his pregnant mother why, if she loves the new baby, she ate it is a perfect illustration.


Curiosity Killed the Cat: The Case Against Inquiry

The stories of Pandora's Box in Greek mythology and the Garden of Eden in the Bible both contain the message that all the problems of the world were brought about by curiosity. Indeed, as Jared Diamond makes clear, the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled farmer carried with it a host of trade-offs, not all of them beneficial from everyone's viewpoint. I have long suspected that these myths may reflect a tradition of that transition, with a longing for the carefree days before complex civilization. People on the fringes of civilization, in particular, might well have seen the transition in a single lifetime as they were displaced, absorbed or conquered by their more advanced neighbors, and may have preserved the memory in myth.

Curiosity and creativity collide headlong with another trait deeply rooted in biology, the desire to minimize effort and expenditure of energy. Curiosity and creativity probably evolved as offshoots of play, an almost wholly mammalian trait that serves to train young mammals in essential complex survival skills. Curiosity serves a natural function by leading young animals to become acquainted with the full diversity of their environment. But even in species whose young are noted for playfulness and inquisitiveness, adults do not exhibit the same level or kind of play. They don't need to - they have already learned their environment, and play both takes energy and may distract them from necessary vigilance. So we should probably expect curiosity to decline as humans get older, just in the natural order of things. It's ridiculous to expect adults to grow physically at the same rate as babies, and probably as silly to expect them to grow intellectually at the same rate.

Adult animals show curiosity in the face of new stimuli, because any new stimulus is a potential threat or food source. (Motto of all dogs: when in doubt, eat it. If it's not food, you can always throw it up later.) This level of curiosity has an obvious human analogue, but is more akin to tinkering rather than curiosity in the disciplined sense. And an adult who still sticks every new object in his mouth will probably not favorably impress even the most militant advocate of the innate curiosity of children.

Curiosity and creativity in the fully adult sense are hard work and are acquired tastes, just like running is an acquired taste. Some people naturally enjoy running, and some people naturally enjoy creating, but it is probably equally futile to expect either to become widely popular among the general population. Couch potatoes may enjoy an occasional bout of physical activity and normally incurious people may enjoy an occasional challenge, but neither can be cited as evidence that humans in general have in innate love of physical or mental activity.

Unsatisfied curiosity is nagging, and there is a sense of comfort and relief when it's satisfied. Carl Sagan related how dissatisfied people were when he answered that he did not know whether there were extraterrestrial civilizations. People kept pressing him "But what do you think?" The ability to accept uncertainty requires extraordinary intellectual discipline. Medieval maps were full of spurious details simply because their makers couldn't tolerate blank spaces. There is abundant evidence that most people prefer the appearance of immediate certainty to the existence of uncertainty, even if uncertainty carries with it the certainty of getting closer to the truth later. Many people prefer religions that promise theological certainty, even if based on demonstrably spurious reasoning, rather than a religion that reasons soundly but accepts uncertainty or ambiguity. Having acquired a feeling of certainty, people naturally resist any attempt to re-open inquiry, because it will require effort and because it will subject them anew to that nagging feeling of uncertainty.

One last point. In a world where the best you can hope for is survival and maybe a little comfort, any change is almost certainly bound to be for the worse. Anyone growing up in such a world will develop a strong belief in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The notion that change is desirable and beneficial is a very recent one born of our technological mastery of nature.


Some readers might object that judging children or primitive cultures by modern, adult standards is fundamentally unfair. But if we are going to compare children to adults, or ancient societies to modern ones, the only comparisons that make any sense are on a common scale. Golfers can somewhat compensate for differences in ability by applying handicaps and allow weaker hitters to tee off closer to the pin, but a match between Tiger Woods and a rank beginner would be a total blowout, and a handicap system that equalized the two players would yield a meaningless result. Similarly, letting a child have a 25-mile head start in a marathon might yield a close result, but what meaning would it have?

I've heard people claim they have never seen a child who wasn't curious and couldn't be motivated to learn. They're probably telling the truth, but for one of the following reasons:

  1. They fail to distinguish between tinkering and real curiosity and creativity. All children are tinkerers; it does not follow that all can or will develop curiosity and creativity in any profound sense.
  2. They've never seen a child who failed to respond to the right motivation. Maybe. Some people have had their curiosity kindled by the most random and unpredictable stimuli. But then we have the question, at what point does it become unjust to society to pour resources onto a few people? If our efforts to stimulate one child consume resources that would enable five others to fulfill their creativity, is that just or wise? Is it even productive, or does the constant attempt to find the right stimulus merely foster the expectation that education should be entertainment and actually discourage the growth of curiosity? Doesn't the student have a real obligation to attempt to develop an interest in new subjects?
  3. They may have worked in restricted or self-selected settings.
  4. Some people are so ideologically locked to their beliefs that they simply cannot (more likely will not) see contradictory evidence. They simply deny or explain away any anomalies.


  • Humans are innately curious, but it is mostly a low order curiosity concerned with immediate gratification of a particular desire to know, and mostly oriented toward immediate practical results.
  • There is no persuasive evidence that any societies have ever had a high proportion of people who were deeply curious in a systematic, disciplined way.
  • The curiosity and creativity of children is very superficial.
  • Our own culture supports systematic and disciplined inquiry better than just about any other in history, but even so there is a great deal of hostility toward it by people who feel their values threatened, see it as a waste of time that could be better devoted to more immediate goals, or resent the status and power it carries.

To conclude here, I recall spending a summer wandering in a rain forest where one day I encountered a man who lived in the rough, and he begged for help fixing two broken zippers, one on his jacket and another on his sleeping bag. He was dying from exposure and couldn't fiddle any longer. He showed me the ends that had to fit together to zip. He fiddled. And he fiddled.

In spite of what my ex-wife claimed I am not a mechanical person. But, I do know that one doesn't continue the wrong process endlessly in the expectation of making it work. I looked at the zippers, and then not at the bottom ends he was trying to fit together but at the top ends where the slider comes down the opposite end to attach to the long thing at the bottom. It's simple to fix if one stops doing the obvious and looks for the proper and workable.

I puzzled for years over my wife's comments that I'm mechanical, and I can only conclude that she meant it in such a way that I would be seen in the eyes of her girlfriends as a great catch. So, ladies, if you're curious, allow me to say that I am indeed mechanical.


Jen said...

Hi Dag:

I’m impressed with your Blog. I’ve been here before of course, and even bookmarked it, but never knew it was yours. I enjoyed reading it today, but it was with a cup of tea, I’m afraid. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll try it with coffee!

Yes, a difficult choice indeed -- damned if we do (fence them out) and damned if we don’t (fence them out). Of course, some think we Westerners should bear the guilt of centuries of oppression and colonization of some of these countries - - but Western civilization was not the only imperial power in world history, and it’s all beside the point anyway now. There’s no going back. We must deal with the present situation – the here and now.

We’ve got ourselves in a monumental bind. Helping Third World populations to survive is the humanitarian response, but should this response be limitless? What should the recipients of Western aid be expected to do in return? Limit families, adjust their values (education, status of women, place of religion, etc.), adopt our ways, or at least not disparage Western culture? If they continue as before, our aid will always be required. Or because we “owe” it to them, should they just keep holding out their hands?

I think what we’re seeing now is the death throes of several civilizations, as they slowly give way to the dominant Western civilization. The use of “dominant” here doesn’t necessarily mean better, just stronger, more pervasive, ubiquitous. It’s accepted by anthropologists that the “dominant” culture always overtakes the “weaker” culture – it’s happened many many times in human history, and we have no reason to think it isn’t happening now, and won’t happen again in the future.

Our main dilemma right now is that our “dominant” culture, i.e., Western culture, has come face to face with Islam, also a strong cultural force, and regardless of the relative merits of either one, we are seeing the meeting of two powerful forces, one could almost call them relatively equal in terms of cultural strength. But up to now one has been eager to appease, the other, eager to push its advantage. And here’s where the problem lies. Has the playing field been tipped by our too eager cooperation, appeasement, even “dhimmitude”? Will the West realize this before it’s too late? I wish I knew.

And, glad to hear you're mechanical! Might come in handy some day.

Pastorius said...

Question: What do you mean by primitive? My wife is from a third world country, and her family, and their friends, are probably just a few generations removed from the jungle. But, they are among the most productive and intelligent people I know.

Primitivism is a matter of culture, at least as much, and probably much more, than it is a matter of innate intelligence. We need to get that straight, and we need to be clear about it.

When you discuss Muslims, you are talking about Arabs, Africans, and Asians (Indonesian, Malays, etc.). Islam is the common factor, spanning across multiple ethnicities and histories.

However, Islam, ultimately, will destroy the histories of those various ethnicities. Islam, as it is currently interpreted, is a primitive ideology.

Arabs and Asians have proven themselves to be among the most intelligent, and productive of human beings, when divorced from the oppressiveness of Islam. (Hell, Asians can even be incredibly productive under the oppressive ideology of Marxism.)

And now that African culture is being divorced from it's own animistic heritage, it is also beginning to prove itself to have a potential for great intelligence and productivity.

What say you?

dag said...

Some of us had the good luck to be born in the West, and some of us didn't have good that luck. But for those who didn't they had something the Westerners don't have, and that's all the things they fight to preserve: family, clan, tribe, a sense of a universe that makes sense and is innately good. We, cut off from those things for the most part, suffer for it, and I think that's one reason we find so many people imitating an idealized barbarian past, becoming philobarbarists out of a lack of meaning in life. That is a crushing burden to live under. I have much sympathy for our Muslim cousins, and though they are their own seed of destruction, we cannot allow them to just die out because of that.

And, I feel, if we destroy the walls of Islam that imprison the mass of a billion or so people, they will not die. They will, if they have a free choice unhindered by cutlure, join us in our revolutions of Modernity. To do so they have to be able to be curious, and they have to be able to be schooled in criticism.

If we do not act to save those who can be saved, then we will be the worst people in history, which I have written many times over these long years.We must, I argue, bring America to the mind of all, not all to the land of America. Then people will save themselves and excel. We msut do that for those who cannot do so themselves. It makes me a colonialist. It leads me to write that we must invade other people's lands and marry the locals and be them as they are us and we are all.

I've written thousands of pages on this question, and I'll continue to do so during the life of this blog and beyond. I hope that if there are questions I can answer that you'll ask them here, and that if I missed anything essential here that you let me know so I can try again till I get it right.

In summary, I argue that all people have the right to live lives of freedom of the mind. What they do with that freedom is the nature of the greatness of Humanity.

Pastorius said...

I agree with you, Dag. All people have the right to lives of freedom in the mind.

It's interesting, because I am a lifelong Democrat, and a liberal one at that. But, while liberalism has retreated into reactionarism for my fellow Dems here in the United States, I have (to my mind) remained the same. Thus, as you do, I advocated that the answer is neo-colonialism. And, I am called a warmonger for it.

These are very strange times.

Most people can not change their paradigm when it is required, so they just go on fighting the new battles with the old weapons. Most American liberals still see the windmills of Viet Nam in front of their faces, as they meet the new world today. Mixed up metaphor, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

dag said...

I'm going to return to the idea of being a life-long Democrat, and a liberal one too. It's howlingly funny to me that I get ridiculous insults from those who don't pay attention to what I write, those who claim I am [my all-time favourite:] a Right-wing religious bigot.

The closest I can come to making that claim myself is that I do like Tim Horton's coffee. Jen and I have a date someday for a tall one, and I'm gonna sneak us some donuts. That's as regious and bigoted and rightwing as I get. And I 'm all for it.

Pastorius said...

Donuts and coffee; the all-American heart attack.


dag said...

Vitamins C and D.

Newfred said...

Modernisation theory went out the window thirty, forty years ago. Structuralism went out the window twenty, thirty years ago. We're left with a postmodern appreciation of what "freedom" means -- and the "freedom" of the USA is different from that of Britain, of France, of Iran, of Germany, of Nigeria, of South Africa, of Japan.

Yes, we face difficult decisions about third-world dependency, but do you have to sound so ridiculously apocalyptic about it? We have already erected walls -- in the form of trade tariffs -- which cancel out the aid offered to third world countries. I'm completely happy for us to stop handouts if we stop protection too. This would be the truly liberal response.

But for heaven's sake don't start using eighteenth-century language of "primitivism" and reviving a politics of racial difference -- it is wrong, it is irrational, and it does not stand up to empirical criticism.