A noble sentiment with a dash of wonky science – ‘I Am’ by Tom Shadyac

I recently acquired an app-based subscription television and film service – an overpriced Australian equivalent of Netflix essentially – with the principal goal of gaining legal access to timely viewing of Game of Thrones. You see I am one of those people who, perhaps sadly, enjoys the ‘water-cooler’ banter produced by the series. I am a long time fantasy fan, but in my line of work I have plenty of reading to do and as wonderful as the printed series surely is, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’. I am also one of those people who feels as though I should pay for access to programming that I genuinely enjoy, and Game of Thrones certainly qualifies. The producers, actors, writers of score and so forth do a noteworthy job, so my sense of fairness and my conscience tells me that making sure that I contribute to their success in as direct a manner as possible is the right thing to do. This notion will be revisited.

Backtracking a little, after obtaining my weekly hit of backstabbing and skullduggery in the land of Westeros I came across a small selection of documentary films available on demand via the aforementioned app. Being somewhat bored and of the proclivity to procrastinate horizontally in bed with an iPad when faced with anything resembling work, I decided to take a chance on one of the films on offer. I went with I Am, a 2010 documentary by Tom Shadyac. Shadyac’s noteworthy prior productions were primarily of the comedic ilk. Among them were things I had enjoyed as a teen such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar.

In the film, Shadyac narrated his experience of receiving a concussion while cycling that left him with post-concussion syndrome – an unpleasant condition in which headaches, photosensitivity and mood instabilities including depression may be experienced for many months after the initial injury. This event triggered something of an existential crisis in Shadyac, who came to realise that something felt very wrong with the world. He looked at the materially obsessed consumption culture of the United States, a culture to which he felt he had contributed with his films, and felt that something had gone awry. With an anthropological tone it was pointed out that native American cultures often viewed the consumption of more than one needed as a kind of mental illness, and that people in modern, consumerist societies were perhaps attempting to fill a hole that had been left in them from a lack of fulfilling interactions with others. In other words, what comfort people could not find in each other, they attempted to find in accumulating various shiny knickknacks. A noble sentiment and at this early juncture in the film Shadyac had captured my interest.

Via interviews with a good many scholars of seemingly divergent repute – ranging from the venerable Noam Chomsky and genial David Suzuki to a host of variably wacky quantum-new-age semi(pseudo?)-scientists – the film then went on to examine how and why it is that we turned our backs on our natural, wholesome and cooperative ways. This is where the whole carriage seemed to have come off of the rails. To begin with, in describing the origins of our dog-eat-dog world of corporate domination, Darwin’s description of natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’ is blamed. This Social Darwinism was of course more so the work of interpreters of Darwin’s work, such as Francis Galton and Herbert Spencer (who actually first coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’), with Spencer’s involvement being so great that when teaching on this matter I tend to prefer that students refer to it as Social Spencerism. So while this movement and its attitudes may have encouraged certain types of predatory capitalism, attempting to blame the theory of Darwinian selection is to commit a serious fallacy – a fallacy so famous that it actually has a name: the naturalistic fallacy.

From this wobbly premise, Shadyac and his cohort of spacey companions (Chomsky and Suzuki aside) go on to explain that because natural selection, as it is taught, is inherently capable of only producing a world of selfish competition, that cooperation and kindness must be bewilderingly aberrant and utterly incompatible with bio-doctrine. They assert that the Darwinian model has led us astray – away from our warm and cuddly natures. With the sum total of Darwinian selection put to the side, smugly satisfied with their coup de gras, they amble on to deliver one of the weirdest explanations of altruism, kindness and cooperation I have ever encountered. They imbue in cooperation and kindness a kind of mystical healing quality that has something to do with the quantum entanglement of our minds and explain that it is entirely natural for us to express kindness to one another and live in harmony because of this interconnectedness. They even do an experiment ‘demonstrating’ that the living cells in yoghurt have the capacity to pick up your emotional state (or that their experimental device can pick up radio waves, or phone signals, or movements of people around a room and so on ad infinitum – what I am getting at is that it was an experimental design that would embarrass a high school biology student). In short, Shadyac concludes that our consumerist society and its inherent exploitation and dissatisfaction (again, a noble sentiment) is causing everyone to give off bad quantum-vibes and that is making everyone really bummed out man (wonky science).

I can see how the non-scientists out there eat this stuff up. The whole message has a kind of proletariat appeal that co-opts the folk-psychology that most people already possess. After all, who likes to be taken advantage of? Who willingly enters into a cycle of disappointing attempts to secure material happiness? What person doesn’t feel something when their loved ones are unhappy? Could it not be because of quantum brain juju? Like all successful deceptions (not that I think the creators of this film were being purposefully deceitful), the trick to this message having such wide appeal is that it is built on half-truths. The first half-truth is that capitalist consumerism is in some sense exploitative, as any sociologist with a grasp of Marxist theory will attest. The second half-truth is that material gain cannot serve as the sole provider of happiness in someone’s life – this realisation is at the core of many theologies and philosophies of ‘the good life’. The third half-truth, and the one that is of most interest to me, is that cooperation and kindness are indeed an important problem in evolutionary biology. Where this third half-truth has been unwittingly abused is that it is also a problem that has, to a large extent, been understood and resolved.

The question of whether cooperation and altruism fly in the face of natural selection is one that is best answered with a quote from Reverend Lovejoy, “Ooooh short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but…”.

Let us take one of the basic premises of the modern evolutionary synthesis, that evolutionary success is defined in terms of fitness – traditionally the number of offspring left behind that go on themselves to be successful parents. Producing offspring requires resources, so it is in the interest of any given organism to secure as many resources as possible. This leads to the notion that organisms (or individual genes if one wants to take the ‘gene’s eye view’ of Dawkins) ought to be utterly selfish. Why share resources if it leads to less being available for one’s own offspring? Up to this point, we are in line with the kind of thinking that Shadyac and associates were engaging in. Now, let us add a twist. What if two organisms working together can obtain a greater bounty of resources than either could by working alone? If true, the organisms could simultaneously cooperate and be self-interested – or re-worded, they could cooperate out of self-interest. This of course leads to problems of the evolution of cheating, deception and so forth – organisms that can get away with such things will of course leave more children – but it will also often lead to the evolution of counter mechanisms that stop things from descending into chaos. In the end, the payoff of working together is often greater for all individuals involved than what would be achieved if they worked alone.

In nature, this is in fact what we see, from collaborations of cells (your body for instance) to social groups of animals (herds, schools, prides and so forth) and the complex social interactions of our own species, Homo sapiens. In fact, when it comes to us, one of the most remarkable things about our species is the comparatively extensive nature of our cooperative capacity and inclination toward altruism toward non-kin. We have every reason to expect that this is an evolved feature of our species, and as such it is perfectly natural for us to behave this way – we could not have built decent spears and huts without it more or less cities and computers. Put succinctly, the fitness payoffs of behaving this way outweigh the costs. Furthermore, if you feel bad when a fellow isn’t doing well it is probably because their perceived lack of success also has the potential to diminish your own – so reliant are we on cooperation to secure fitness. This isn’t to say that we have the whole process of human behavioral evolution figured out just yet – I would not have a doctoral project if we did – but what I am getting at is that we have no reason to believe it has anything to do with quantum brain vibes or anything else electrical devices can supposedly detect in yoghurt.

Coming back to Game of Thrones and my paying for a subscription, I find injustice and taking advantage of others distasteful and helping those that I appreciate rewarding. Moreover, I suspect that I feel this way for evolutionary reasons. This is why I pay when I could simply illegally download the episodes. As far as scientific research can gather it is a characteristic that is near typical of our species in many situations – with the notable exception of paying for content on the internet (it comes down to the likelihood of punishment on this one – remember what I said about mechanisms for cheating and detection? – in this case I suppose I am what is referred to in the literature as a strong reciprocator). It is near typical because evolution has shaped it to be so – it just so happens that cooperating and performing acts of altruism is a very good way of being selfish. In closing, while I sympathise with Shadyac’s concerns over our depressingly materialistic ways, his explanation of how they have come about is built upon the shakiest of foundations. So shaky that the word foundation is probably inappropriate. As to the question of how a species that is so heavily geared toward cooperation and kindness can produce a system that seems so devoid of it – well that is a topic for another post.