The Evolution of Western Individualism, Part I of II

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

A sincere thank you to those who attended Owl & Ibis – A Confluence of Minds on Tuesday, October 23, 2018 for my presentation, The Evolution of Western Individualism, Part I, ”From the East African Rift to Silicon Valley.” For those who missed it a PowerPoint version is here. A PDF copy of the slideshow is here.

A key part of the meeting was an individualism-collectivism measure and an accompanying graph I developed. This may be viewed below or download in higher resolution as an MS Excel spreadsheet here. Any comments or questions you may have about the slideshow or the measure and graph are welcome.


Regrettably, I ran over my allotted time presenting Part I and did not allow enough opportunity for discussion. I will be sure to allow plenty of discussion time during Part II, “Individualism in the 20th and 21st Centuries – A Closer Look.”


November 13 – No Meeting

November 27 – No Meeting

Dec 11 – The Evolution of Western Individualism, Part II, “Individualism in the 20th and 21st Centuries – A Closer Look” by Jim Lassiter

Dec 25 – No Meeting

Jan 08 – Little Known Facts About Gardening by Steve Yothment

Jan 22 – TBD


My Sources of News and Information

I am sometimes asked what sources I use for news and information. In addition to electronic and paper books and a free local weekly newspaper tossed in my driveway every Wednesday (awful opinion page, great crossword puzzle), I read mostly online sources. Some of them I subscribe to at reasonable rates. The following are my main sources for news, articles, commentary, essays, and other information. Very often in reading something I’ll explore an embedded link to an additional source. But these are my day-to-day places. If you know and use others you think I might be interested in, please put them and their links in a comment. Thanks!


New York Times

Washington Post

PBS News Hour

The Guardian



Atlanta Journal Constitution

Al Jazeera

Sky News

Deutsche Welle


American Association for the Advancement of Science




Arts & Letters Daily

Atlantic, The


Brain Pickings

Cato Institute

Center for Individualism

Chronicle of Higher Education

Conversation, The

Cook Political Report

Dark Mountain Project


Economist, The

Footnotes to Plato, Massimo Pigliuuci

Free Africa Forum

Globalist, The


Hedgehog Review

Hoover Institution

Huffington Post

Institute of Arts and Ideas, The


Los Angeles Review of Books

Literary Review, The




Migration Policy Institute


New Oxonian

New Scientist

New Statesman

New York Review of Books

New Yorker, The

Objective Standard, The

Oxford University Press Blog


Philosopher’s Magazine, The

Philosophy Now



RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)


Science Daily






Spiritual Naturalist

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Times Literary Supplement

United Nations



Walrus, The



Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – A Conversation with a Friend in Cape Town

Land Grab

Friend: I see that Trump has entered South African politics. This bloody issue of  [land] expropriation might really be a tipping point. How far does it go? Sure the whole colonial bit and apartheid were abhorrent. But firing the pendulum to the complete opposite also seems to invite chaos and evil. Yessus! The Institute of Race Relations here does some reliable measurements of attitudes and those do not show the excessive inter-group hatred that seems to be promoted by populist leaders. But who will gain the upper hand in the power stakes?

Me: Trumpian populism in South Africa’s politics!? Hadn’t been following the recent expropriations. Can’t think of a worse setting for populism. Talk about pouring gasoline on a fire.


One of my profs (economics) in grad school at Oregon in the ‘70s had a line he liked repeating: “The world is globalizing and tribalizing simultaneously.” He insisted it was an unsustainable dynamic that would eventually come to a fork in the road. He seemed to have no idea which fork we’d take, understandably, but he sure seemed worried about it. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to his caution. I was intoxicated by the myth that “international development” would save the day. And I was going to do my part by joining the Peace Corps and going to Africa to help in the education sector. I finally woke up after living in Swaziland a while in the early 1980s and, while there, talking and drinking a lot with Zulu, Swazi and Sotho friends sitting on the ground behind the bottle store, across the highway from the school where I taught…

Demonstrator Johnny Benitez faces off with a counter-protester during an America First rally in Laguna Beach

At that time, the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and up until BREXIT and Trump, most economists thought the world would take and stay on the rational, all-ships-rise-with-the-tide fork in the road – the one toward ever greater globalization.

These days it seems the sapient ape, all puffed up in his nation-states and suits, is more the emotional primate willing to fight for control of all the pie in a zero sum game. And the bloody politicians of the world are willing to ride the unbridled horse of capitalism over a cliff, and take the rest of us with them. Problem is, most of those buggars will get rich in the process and escape the abyss. They will fall into their walled, well-armed, gated communities with a golden parachute. Meantime the rest of us will drown in the “blood-dimmed tide” where “the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity…”

For most of my adult life I’ve been optimistic about Humankind. I’ve written about it often on my blog citing three innovations and inventions in our evolutionary prehistory and history – stone tool use, language and cooperative living; writing and the Gutenberg printing press; and the Internet – as reasons for my optimism. Surely, I thought, these are lessons and means enough to educate a critical mass of the world’s population with facts and methods needed to ensure Humankind will survive and flourish.

But like the economic models that rely on the rational man arguments, I too became blinded to the darker but equally powerful side of Homo sapiens – that greedy, cheeky little monkey in too many humans who will screw his brother’s mate or steal his candy if he thinks he might get away with it without a drubbing or worse.

Two Options

The Western Enlightenment notion of individual and group flourishing through reason and science/tech was a dream ahead of its time, one not warranting the confidence we and ultimately the rest of the world have placed in it. Or, we must accept that that dream must be postponed because the wars and genocides of the 20th Century were evidently not lessons enough and our memories too short.

DMP New Web Image

Maybe the Dark Mountain Project has it right – the myth of unbridled capitalism fueled by the myth of progress has doomed us to suffer unprecedented catastrophes and civilizational collapse. Until then, DMP says, our only hope is to prepare for it and craft a new myth/story. That being a guiding story of human survival and flourishing not created by the rich, the politicians, or the scientists and technologists; rather, one created by the creators of literature. A new literature of Earth and community sustainability and cooperation at all levels.

Our Owl & Ibis group looked at the DMP premises and arguments for six months, in depth. We concluded Humankind has no real option but to continue its still meager and undermined-by-nationalism efforts at improving global cooperation (UN and others), and to stave off the harmful toll of free capitalism through sci/tech intervention. That a new story by the literati along the way couldn’t hurt. That perhaps the trajectory of Humankind’s time on Earth is not as controllable as we thought. Hunker down, do what you can.

Big Muddy

So buckle up folks. The only way through to the other, better side of being human is straight ahead across the Big Muddy (lyrics), as Pete Seeger sang about the Vietnam War in 1967 (video). Analogously, Humankind is waist deep in the Big Muddy of capitalist exceptionalism and the big fools in power keep sayin’: “Push on!” Will we make it or we will have to turn back and find another way, if such an option presents itself?

Like all other needle eyes of evolution we’ve made it through by the skin of our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll make it through this current one. Two-thirds of us are theists and are convinced prayer and God will save us. I’m less optimistic than I used to be.

Friend: The Big Muddy and Muddling Through are clearly parallel philosophies. Onward!


The Power of Human Creativity: The Future of the World May Depend on It

“Things I Would Not Normally Recycle”

On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, the Owl & Ibis Confluence of Minds took a swipe at the Dark Mountain Project by tapping into our respective creative spirits. Why? Perhaps to actively, personally demonstrate to ourselves that the human creative spirit is alive, well and ever necessary – now, if not more than ever, during the 200,000-year evolutionary history of Homo sapiens.

Necessary, especially now, given DMP’s and others’ claims of impending global catastrophe(s) from human arrogance and delusion, and wasteful, unbridled-growth global capitalism.

Since January, O&I has been closely examining DMP’s bleak forecast, and DMP’s suggestion that only the arts, especially literary efforts at a new “story” for civilization, can help avert the coming fall of Humankind. Tuesday evening’s presentation, “Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future, Art” led by Judith Moore, and the upcoming O&I presentation on June 26, “Current Worldviews and Visions of the Future, The Humanities” by John Cruickshank, will conclude O&I’s look at the Dark Mountain Project. To the relief of many, I am sure.

Kudos and a hearty thank you to Judith for organizing and leading this great evening, and to her husband Richard who participated and helped schlep the pile of art materials to the meeting! Judith’s presentation also included showing excellent short videos on creating art works from disposed of materials and Dan Phillips’ construction of alternative homes from found and natural items, and construction project discards.

“Never underestimate the power of human creativity!” one attendee quipped at Tuesday’s meeting.

Great evening, time well spent! At top is an image of one of the evening’s creations. Here are the rest:




Pith helmet a prop, not standard O&I gear. 🙂


Stoicism and relationships: three models

Great piece on relationships by Massimo Pigliucci – scientist, philosopher and Stoic.

How to Be a Stoic

Xanthippe pours the contents of a chamber pot on Socrates’ head

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking of relationships of late, from a Stoic perspective. In part this has been spurred by my reading of Liz Gloyn’s superb The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, regarding which I’m running a multi-part commentary. I recently also ran one of my Stoic School of Life meetups in New York in which we discussed the function of role models in Stoic moral development. So why not combine the two? Does Stoic lore provide us with examples of relationships we could reflect on and, perhaps even use as guidance? As it turns out, it does, and I have picked three in particular to discuss here.

Before we get started, however, a due caveat: all three examples are, not surprisingly, of heterosexual relationships where the man is the philosopher and the woman…

View original post 1,881 more words


Hamlet & Human Nature

Program for a nineteenth-century production of <i>Hamlet</i>

Program for a nineteenth-century production of Hamlet


What follows in this note and the linked essay below may be obvious to you. Maybe such things become more obvious to most of us the longer we live; and if, in living longer, we find ourselves among the fortunate who learn from our experience. I think the matter of decision-making prior to taking actions in our lives is worth thinking about to some degree, at least occasionally.

Doing so seems especially important in our teens. Or maybe later in early adulthood when we start to put in practice and test the ideas we learned, fully or partially, as teenagers. But, really, who among us ever did this in our youth? Rarely, except maybe when we were smacked between eyes by the reality of some stupid action we had taken, did we stop and consider what led us to such an action. And when we did we were seldom able to ferret out a good, useful answer from our under-cooked brains and the cauldron of hormones we were drowning in. That said, I think it is important from time to time – in our youth, in our prime, and in old age – to occasionally revisit our means of personal decision-making.

What is the point of such an effort? To become sagely wise? Very few of us become sages including first and foremost, yours truly. In fact, I’ve never met a sage and if I did or ever will I am not smart enough to know it. Should we study our moral decision-making because Socrates insisted that “an unexamined life is not worth living?” I don’t think either justification has merit or is inherently worth pursuing. Self examination should be attempted for good practical reasons and purposes. The Stoic Epictetus put it this way: “This, then, is the beginning of philosophy – an awareness of one’s own mental fitness.” More to the point, he said: “If you didn’t learn these things (the principles of philosophy) in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” In short, we should pursue wisdom and self-knowledge in order to become better persons.

As for you who have a means of personal decision-making you are satisfied with, or have no difficulty with the imperfect way most of us muddle through, I salute you. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m skeptical that the confidence and comfort you feel comes from a decision based on blind faith for the sake of making the anxiety of uncertainty tolerable, if not “go away.” I understand that. “Hamlet moments” of indecision over the serious matters arising in our lives are unpleasant. And the act of agonizing over these episodes solves nothing. I think for most people making these decisions is a practical matter. That is, make the best decision you are capable of at the time, in a way that keeps one’s stress level as low as possible, then just move on. I suppose, sooner or later, we all end up doing this.

But I sometimes wonder, is it better to be comforted based on such faith, or be practical and not agonize over our dilemmas, or to live in the ebb and flow of anxiousness from trying to truthfully, objectively stare the uncertainty of our moral decision-making in the eye? Maybe there is room for a full range of valid and viable approaches among Humankind. Maybe there always has been and always will be. Then again, maybe there is a way out of the recurring dilemma of whether to act or not, and if to act, in what way? To find out, let’s consider the main character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and an author and a reviewer’s respective views of him and his moral decision-making.

Hamlet & Morality – Where The Buck Stops

Is Hamlet the moral, decision-fearing weakling we were taught in high school or college? Was Hamlet no different from the rest of us at present?  That is, being too often overwhelmed when facing serious moral dilemmas – to be, or not to be; to act or not act? How is it many of us so often find ourselves blocked from making a decision about action on a serious matter because we don’t have, or refuse to avail ourselves of, a satisfying moral system to turn for help in making our decisions? For example, when someone finds no help in the rigid moral codes of religion, or secular reasoning such (including Stoicism), or the common sense of folk psychology? And in the end is left on his/her own, with only the question of what is best for ourselves and, maybe, for others? Then, finding our ‘self,’ by its very nature, torn between our personal needs for survival, virtue and self-respect on the one hand; and on the other the needs of other people – the moral obligation to honor our family and larger groups, and live up to that which others say a honorable person should do to be human?

All social animals often face and must resolve this dilemma. Sometimes the result has serious if not deadly consequences. That is, deciding what is best for oneself and/or what is best for the group. Humans, and perhaps all sentient social creatures, are born with and improve upon inherent capacities to do this. But each of us must resign ourselves to probabilities rather than guarantees that the choices we make and actions we take will benefit us and/or others appropriately.

Of course, during our respective lives some of our possible and actual choices and actions are better than others. But we can never know for sure beforehand, only afterwards. Even then, the outcome can be mixed as to its virtue or morality. That is to say, acting in a compromising manner that partially satisfies oneself and the other can be a disappointment to all.


The Nguni Bantu peoples of southern Africa (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, & others) provide some insight on these matters. Their notion of ubuntu, “I am because we are” or “a sense of and appreciation for the humanity of others” is helpful. The Nguni take the long view – in your decision-making give first priority to what is best for the group not the self, that is, one’s family and one’s community. Their rationale being, if all give first priority all the time to the self, the group will eventually fail and disappear. When that happens there will be no more groups to give birth to, nurture, protect, and support new selves.

However, there is seldom a clear and unequivocal choice between what is best for me or what is best for us. Further, whatever decision is made or action taken, on all matters great or small, the outcome that is played out in our lives and among our fellows is for the most part beyond our control.

The book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness and a review of it “The Question of Hamlet” provide respective views on Hamlet’s decision making. Both consider the consequences of relying either on the groups’ moral systems or on his (our) personal, self-oriented needs. The author and reviewer both seem to argue there is no way to resolve the dilemma. That it is an endeavor each individual is bound to lose, especially when choosing what best suits the self.

Here’s my take. Your best chance to survive and possibly thrive is to learn the rules of the game, take the stage, make decisions and take actions you think best. Sometimes this will favor your own interests, other times the interests of your groups. Then, once your action is taken, respond to the consequences as best you can in a like manner. Maybe you will survive. Maybe you will flourish. Maybe not. In the course of your life, that being the evolutionary short term, consider if each action option matters to you, and consider what you see of your self living within the group after each of the options is taken. In the group’s life, the long evolutionary term, you and your decisions only really matter to the extent your actions help the group – to survive, to flourish.

Your thoughts?


Emotion Over Reason, Reason Over Emotion?


Suddenly seeing a snake in your path, followed by a fixed wide-eyed stare, muscle tenseness, increased heart rate, perhaps a jump backwards, are emotionally reflexive responses, not deliberative or reasoned choices and actions. There is little if any deliberative, choice-making reasoning occurring in this instance.

During the snake encounter emotion played a dominant role. Reasoning, as a reflection on the events that just happened, came second: “Yes, that was a snake, a poisonous one. Good thing I saw it when I did. To have stepped on it may have made it bite me. I might have died if it had.” Reasoning can also be a slower more deliberative post hoc rationalization of the emotions we experience and the emotion-driven actions we take: “So-and-so repulses me physically, visually. I have a bad feeling being in his/her presence. I will avoid this person because of this.”

These examples do not justify a now widely accepted conclusion that reasoning, in general and for the most often, is an after-the-fact comment, reflection, justification or rationalization of emotional states. This emotion-above-all view is one that psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have recently convinced many pundits and much of the public to believe. I think Haidt’s view is yet another modern version of sociobiology or Skinnerian stimulus-response behaviorism. It minimizes the role and importance of reasoning in human affairs and points to genetic, sensory-emotive and hormonal processes as the predominant and overriding causes of behavior.

Deliberative, choice-making reasoning also plays an important role as a basis for action, a role in one’s life that may be influenced by but can remain functionally separate from one’s emotional state.

In a mature mind that is operating optimally in terms of personal and social wellbeing capacity, reasoning is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. It is a deliberative process, a post-emotion, option-considered, over-riding response to matters our senses and emotions alert us too. It is not a perfect, failsafe process. The best deliberative thinking and choice-making can lead to failure, harm or death due to circumstances beyond one’s knowledge or control. But, reasoning of this kind, versus behavior based on raw emotion (the snake response, etc.), increases one’s chances of making decisions and taking actions that provide greater benefit for individual survival and social flourishing.

There is also a virtue and moral aspect of reasoning – Hitler was capable of deliberation and considering options but his ideas and actions were immoral and lacking virtue. His ideas and actions did not provide benefit to individual wellbeing or contribute to social flourishing as these are understood by most sane people.

More generally, consider the matter of individual survival or wellbeing and group flourishing in the long-term, that is, evolutionarily. Take, for example, the emotion fear as it is prompted by conditions of extreme hunger, lack of shelter or safe haven, or knowledge of being in a high-threat predator environment.

Under such circumstances the deliberative, option-considered responses and strategies arrived at from deciding on how to seek food and protect oneself from weather and predator attack are not emotional ‘decisions’ where reasoning comes along later as a rationalization or justification. They are arrived at through a process of decision-making based on calculated assessments of the potential positive yield and risks associated with various behavioral response options.

This is a process all sentient animals use. If birds at my backyard feeder, for example, become habituated to my presence they do so based on their recognition and remembrance of me, and their acceptance of their conclusion that I pose a low and therefore tolerable risk of harm or death. This is not a post hoc rationalization of, say, a bird’s initial emotional response to my presence. It is a decision it makes each time it sees and identifies me, as opposed to its reaction to someone who is not me, someone they have not seen before.

The Greco-Roman Stoics wrote down this ancient wisdom and encouraged and taught methods for its practice. They taught the use of deliberative reasoning to devise and choose among various possible responses when specific emotions (impressions) arise. Here is an excellent essay by Massimo Pigliucci describing the Stoic view of emotions:

Reason and Emotion, Plato

Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning. – Frank S. Robinson, “Reason vs. Emotion?,” The Rational Optimist, September 13, 2012

Stoicism and Emotion, IV: Feelings Without Assent

by Massimo Pigliucci