Discussion Questions for Social

Discussion Questions for Social:

1) Lieberman believes we are “wired together” for an intensely social existence. He says: “evolution moves us toward interdependence” and this is a “design feature, not flaw” (9). If Lieberman is correct, capitalism is at odds with our neural wiring and is a hindrance to our evolutionary development. Political systems should operate on peoples’ desire for community, equality and reciprocity rather than individualistic or familial accumulation of wealth/power. In an article titled “Why Socialism” Einstein described socialism as humanity’s attempt to “overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.” According to Lieberman, we biologically respond to fairness like chocolate (71). We are inherently altruistic creatures. The reason we do not behave altruistically is because we have the incorrect assumption that altruism is antithetical to human nature (96). What does Lieberman’s analysis suggest about the desirability and potentiality of socialism? Do you think it is possible for a political system to harness the power of friendliness and benevolence rather than greed?

2) Does Lieberman give humanity too much credit? Are we really as altruistic as he suggests? He equates the success of Facebook with the desire to connect with others. Could we not also argue that Facebook is about self-branding, narcissism, even solipsism – think about the selfie phenomenon. He also notes that Americans give an average of $300 billion a year to charities. But is this number really impressive when we consider that Americans also use the majority of the world’s resources to the detriment of “third-world” people? For instance, Americans constitute only 5% of the world’s population but consume 24% of the world’s energy (http://public.wsu.edu/~mreed/380American%20Consumption.htm). Sometimes giving to charity can be a simple, self-gratifying form of generosity that positions the self as helper rather than harmer. Also, consider the fact that in 2008, Americans spent $400 billion “enhancing their appearance” (http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9516.pdf, 4). Lieberman would surely reply that the desire to be liked and admired relates directly to the desire to be accepted and loved. I don’t disagree but I’m just not sure I accept his claim that social connection is our “default” setting or our innate “passion.” Einstein said: “individuality is an optical delusion” meaning that biologically, we are hardwired for solipsistic delusion: I can only see out of my own two eyes, therefore it appears to me that I am the center of the universe. If so, maybe we are not designed for social connection? Rather, we must work to overcome our illogical and delusional default settings to cultivate social connection. What do you think?

3) Continuing on this topic of giving humanity too much credit… Lieberman seems to believe that humans “dominated the planet because of their ability to think socially.” On numerous occasions, he juxtaposes humans with animals to show how profoundly social we are. Ironically, he also draws on experiments conducted with rats and primates to explain human cognition. Sometimes he clearly demonstrates that animals are social, other times I think he denies this in a reductionist way. For instance, he says “friendship has been documented in only a few species but it is nearly universal in humans” (24). He does not provide a citation for this. In Joan Roughgarden’s The Genial Gene (2009), she offers an alternative to Darwin’s sexual selection theory: social-selection theory. She makes this argument by drawing on the social behavior and teamwork of a plethora of animal species. Theoretically, Roughgarden aligns with Lieberman but tells the story of social existence in a way that recognizes the social nature of both animals and humans.  During Lieberman’s discussion about brain size relative to body size, he notes that killer whales have huge brains with 11 billion neurons (only 0.5 billion less than human brains). What is “self” to a whale? What is social connection? Can we possibly know? It’s cool he brings up the complexity/size of whale brains but ultimately it is only to explicate what he means by brain size. Did anyone else find Lieberman’s references to animal consciousness and sociality problematic/anthrocentric?

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One Response to Discussion Questions for Social

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    Your questions identify a lot of interesting assumptions and rhetorical tendencies in Lieberman.

    I kept wondering why “dominating the planet” was such a good thing. Does that really make humans superior to other species? What about living in synch with the environment, rather than dominating it–which basically amounts to destroying it. At least that’s the way it looks in our current history.

    You also draw attention to a lot of Lieberman’s metaphors. “Wired” is my pet peeve. We are not made of wires. Of course, all neurscientists know this, yet they persist in using the metaphor. It’s a cliche at this point, but it’s also one that suggests a more mechanistic biology than the reality of cellular composition and neural systems.

    And, yes, I think he anthrocentric. I think he’s a centrist philosophically and politically, and this informs his conclusions. It’s good to note the fact that the intellectual bias of a scientist will often inform the conclusions he draws from data–and the mehodologies he devises for generating that data. Lieberman has done a lot of great work, but it doesn’t mean he’s found the truth.

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