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Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 88,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
We came across a cool book recently called Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies, by a social psychologist named Bo Bennett. We were a bit skeptical at first — lists like that can be lacking thoughtfulness and synthesis — but then were hooked by a sentence in the introduction that brought the book near and dear to our hearts:
This book is a crash course, meant to catapult you into a world where you start to see things how they really are, not how you think they are.
We could use the same tag line for Farnam Street. (What was that thing about great artists stealing?)
Logically Fallacious a fun little reference guide to bad thinking, but let’s try to highlight a few that seem to arise quite often without enough recognition. (To head off any objections at the pass, most of these are not strict logical fallacies in the technical sense, but more so examples of bad reasoning.)
This one is a favorite. It arises when someone makes a broad sweeping claim that a “real” or “true” so and so would only do X or would never do Y.
Example: “No true Scotsman would drink an ale like that!”
“I know dyed-in-the-wool Scotsmen who drink many such ales!”
“Well then he’s not a True Scotsman!”
Problem: The problem should be obvious: It’s a circular definition! A True Scotsman is thus defined as anyone who would not drink such ales, which then makes them a True Scotsman, and so on. It’s non-falsifiable. There’s a Puritanical aspect to this line of reasoning that almost always leads to circularity.
This doesn’t have to do with genetics per se so much as the genetic origin of an argument. The “genetic fallacy” is when you disclaim someone’s argument based solely on some aspect of their background or the motivation of the claim.
Example: “Of course Joe’s arguing that unions are good for the world, he’s the head of the Local 147 Chapter!”
Problem: Whether or not Joe is the head of his local union chapter has nothing to do with whether unions are good or bad. It certainly may influence his argument, but it doesn’t invalidate his argument. You must approach the merits of the argument rather than the merits of Joe to figure out whether it’s true or not.
This is when someone tries to “explain” something slippery by redefining it in an equally nebulous way, instead of actually explaining it. Hearing something stated this way is usually a strong indicator that the person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Example: “The Secret works because of the vibration of sub-lingual frequencies.”
“What the heck are sub-lingual frequencies?”
“They’re waves of energy that exist below the level of our consciousness.”
Problem: The claimant thinks they have explained the thing in a satisfactory way, but they haven’t — they’ve simply offered another useless definition that does no work in explaining why the claim makes any sense. Too often the challenger will simply accept the follow up, or worse, repeat it to others, without getting a satisfactory explanation. In a Feynman-like way, you must keep probing, and if the probes reveal more failures to elucidate, it’s likely that you can reject the claim, at least until real evidence is presented.
This reflects closely on Nassim Taleb’s work and the concept of the Narrative Fallacy — an undue simplifying of reality to a simple cause–> effect chain.
Example: “Warren Buffett was successful because his dad was a Congressman. He had a leg up I don’t have!”
Problem: This form of argument is used pretty frequently because the claimant wishes it was true or is otherwise comfortable with the narrative. It resolves reality into a neat little box, when actual reality is complicated. To address this particular example, extreme success on the level of a Buffett clearly would have multiple causes acting in the same direction. His father’s political affiliation is probably way down the list.
This fallacy is common in conspiracy theory-type arguments, where the proponent is convinced that because they have some inarguable facts — Howard Buffett was a congressman; being politically connected offers some advantages — their conclusion must also be correct. They ignore other explanations that are likely to be more correct, or refuse to admit that we don’t quite know the answer. Reductionism leads to a lot of wrong thinking — the antidote is learning to think more broadly and be skeptical of narratives.
These two fallacies are two sides of the same coin: The first problem is thinking that if some part of a greater whole has certain properties, that the whole must share the same properties. The second is the reverse: Thinking that because a whole is judged to have certain properties, that its constituent parts must necessarily share those properties.
Examples: “Your brain is made of molecules, and molecules are not conscious, so your brain must not be the source of consciousness.”
“Wall Street is a dishonest place, and so my neighbor Steve, who works at Goldman Sachs, must be a crook.”
Problem: In the first example, stolen directly from the book, we’re ignoring emergent properties: Qualities that emerge upon the combination of various elements with more mundane innate qualities. (Like a great corporate culture.) In the second example, we make the same mistake in a mirrored way: We forget that greed may be emergent in the system itself, even from a group of otherwise fairly honest people. The other mistake is assuming that each constituent part of the system must necessarily share the traits of the whole system. (i.e., because Wall St. is a dishonest system, your neighbor must be dishonest.)
Still Interested? Check out the whole book. It’s fun to pick up regularly and see which fallacies you can start recognizing all around you.
“The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”
Life is full of problems. We can moan about them or we can solve them. Scott Peck argues in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth that discipline is the toolbox for solving problems.
Peck’s argument is based on the notion that most of us want to avoid problems – they are painful and often lead us to confront our humanity. They are frustrating. There are false starts. We lack consistent frameworks for improvement. They cause us to feel sad and lonely; things we’d rather avoid. The mental pain and strain often rivals physical pain. Yet Peck argues it is in this “whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.”
Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”
This is why some of us come to welcome problems. Most of us, however, fear them.
Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.
Ultimately however the suffering from avoiding reality is more painful than reality itself. You can see where this goes right? Now we want to avoid the pseudo-reality that we created to avoid the reality. And so it builds, layer on layer.
Avoiding problems avoids the growth opportunity. Most of the time problems don’t go away, rather they grow.
This inclination to ignore problems is once again a simple manifestation of an unwillingness to delay gratification. Confronting problems is, as I have said, painful. To willingly confront a problem early, before we are forced to confront it by circumstances, means to put aside something pleasant or less painful for something more painful. It is choosing to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choosing to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.
What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing.
Easy to learn and yet hard to employ. These are the tools to confront problems and thus pain.
Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.
The extent to which we will go to avoid responsibility should come as no surprise. Accepting responsibility is emotionally uncomfortable. We often feel, incorrectly, that we can solve a problem by saying “That’s not my problem.” Other times we hope that someone else will just solve it for us.
I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”
There are extremes of responsibility.
The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.
Just remember …
Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization, or entity.
This sounds a lot like Joseph Tussman’s wise advice. Most of us have problems confronting reality because it does not line up with how we want the world to work. The rise of a political figure that we don’t support baffles us because in our mind the world shouldn’t work that way.
What Peck outlines below is a version of the map and terrority problem.
Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. … Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.
This biggest problem isn’t that our maps are inaccurate but rather that we fail, especially as we age, to revise them. The world is always changing. As Heraclitus said, No man can step in the same river twice.
The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing.
When we’ve worked so hard over so many years to create a map that we believe represents the world, we tend to ignore information that would suggest we need to redraw our map. We become defensive. Often we don’t even passively ignore this information. We go further. We denounce it or crusade against it. We feel that people who listen to it are idiots and we are the only ones who see the truth. Rather than change our map, we often try to (mentally) destroy the new reality and those that subscribe to it.
Pride and ego come into play.
Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say that we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.
Openness to Challenge
What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.
The only way we can ensure our map is correct and accurate is to expose it to the criticism of others. There might be a better answer than the one you have. We need an outside view, otherwise we live in a closed system. The tendency to avoid being challenged is a characteristic of human nature.
The Four Tools of Discipline. Click To Tweet
Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.
To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and hotly. We therefore not only need to know how to deal with our anger in different ways at different times but also how most appropriately to match the right time with the right style of expression. To handle our anger with full adequacy and competence, an elaborate, flexible response system is required. It is no wonder, then, that to learn to handle our anger is a complex task which usually cannot be completed before adulthood, or even mid-life, and which often is never completed.
Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.
The Road Less Traveled is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human and to struggle to get better.
On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk reading and so much more with Ryan Holiday.
On this episode you’ll learn how he reads, what it means to be a Stoic, the two sides of Seneca, dealing with over-work, what he learned from working with Robert Greene and his system for taking notes.
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Stoics in Book 7)
Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power
James Romm Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
Pierre Hadot The Inner Citadel
Robert Caro The Years of Lyndon Johnson
A complete transcript is available for members.
In 1960, David Packard gave an informal speech that wasn’t originally intended for publication. In fact the speech only surfaced again during the debate over the merger between Hewlett Packard and Compaq. At the time the leadership of HP portrayed themselves as doing exactly “what Dave Packard would have done.”
As a rebuttal to this dubious use of language, David Packard Jr. published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (March 15, 2002) reprinting a wonderful speech his father gave in the ’60s to a group of HP managers. Nothing could be better evidence of the philosophy than the words, delivered on the job from his father.
The speech, which can be found in The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, dealt with a number of subjects including why a company exists, the difference between management by objective and management by control, how to manage people, the importance of financial responsibility and more.
Packard opens his speech by saying “I think this is going to be crucial in determining whether we are able to continue to grow and keep an efficient organization and maintain the character of our company”.
When discussing why a company exists in the first place, Packard writes:
I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental).
So with that in mind let us discuss why the Hewlett-Packard Company exists. I think it is obvious that we started this company because Bill and I, and some of those working with us in the early days, felt that we were able to design and make instruments which were not as yet available. I believe that our company has grown over the years for that very reason. Working together we have been able to provide for the technical people, our customers, things which are better than they were able to get anywhere else. The real reason for our existence is that we provide something which is unique. Our particular area of contribution is to design, develop, and manufacture electronic measuring instruments.
[T]he reason for our existence and the measure of our success is how well we are able to make our product.
As for how the individual person fits into these efforts, Packard hits on the difference between management by objective and management by control:
The individual works, partly to make money, of course, but we should also realize that the individual who is doing a worthwhile job is working because he feels he is accomplishing something worthwhile. This is important in your association with these individuals. You know that those people you work with that are working only for money are not making any real contribution. I want to emphasize then that people work to make a contribution and they do this best when they have a real objective when they know what they are trying to achieve and are able to use their own capabilities to the greatest extent. This is a basic philosophy which we have discussed before— Management by Objective as compared to Management by Control.
Continuing, Packard hits on the notion of what it means to supervise someone:
In other words when we discuss supervision and management we are not talking about a military type organization where the man at the top issues an order and it is passed on down the line until the man at the bottom does as he is told without question (or reason). That is precisely the type of organization we do not want. We feel our objectives can best be achieved by people who understand what they are trying to do and can utilize their own capabilities to do them. I have noticed when we promote people from a routine job to a supervisory position, there is a tremendous likelihood that these people will get carried away by the authority. They figure that all they have to do now is tell everyone else what to do and quite often this attitude causes trouble. We must realize that supervision is not a job of giving orders; it is a job of providing the opportunity for people to use their capabilities efficiently and effectively. I don’t mean you are not to give orders. I mean that what you are trying to get is something else. One of the underlying requirements of this sort of approach is that we do understand a little more specifically what the objectives of the company are. These then have to be translated into the objectives of the departments and groups and so on down.
While Steve Jobs famously said that focus is the ability to say no, Packard approached focus from another angle:
The other objective which is complementary to this and equally important is to try to make everything we do worthwhile. We want to do our best when we take on a job. … The logical result of this is that as we concentrate our efforts on these areas and are able to find better ways to do the job, we will logically, develop a better line of general purpose measuring instruments.
Getting the product to the customer is only half the job.
In engineering, there are two basic criteria that are uppermost in the definition of what we hope to be able to do. As we develop these new instruments, we hope they will be creative in their design, and they will provide better ways of doing a job. There are many examples of this— the instruments our engineers have developed this last year give us some good examples. The clip-on milliammeter, the new wave analyzer, the sampling scope— all are really creative designs. They give people who buy them methods of making measurements they could not make before those instruments were available. However, creative design alone is not enough and never will be. In order to make these into useful devices, there must be meticulous attention to detail. The engineers understand this. They get an instrument to the place where it is about ready to go and the job is about half done. The same applies in the manufacturing end of the program. We need to produce efficiently in order to achieve our slogan of inexpensive quality. Cost is a very important part of the objective in manufacturing, but producing an instrument in the quickest manner is not satisfactory unless at the same time every detail is right. Attention to detail is as important in manufacturing as it is in engineering.
It’s not about what you sell, it’s about the problems you solve.
We certainly are not anxious to sell a customer something he does not want, nor need. You may laugh, but this has happened— in other companies of course, not ours! Also, we want to be sure that when the instrument is delivered, it performs the function the customer wanted.
Packard, ever the financial conservative, offers a timeless lesson on financial responsibility:
Financial responsibility is equally important, however different in nature. It is essentially a service function to see that we generate the resources which make it possible for us all to do our job.
These things translated mean that in addition to having the objective of trying to make a contribution to our customers, we must consider our responsibilities in a broader sense. If our main thought is to make money, we won’t care about these details. If we don’t care about the details, we won’t make as much money. They go hand in hand.
On the company’s responsibility to employees:
We are not interested only in making a better product. We feel that in asking you people to work for us, we in turn have an obligation. This is an important point and one which we ask each of you to relay to all the employees. Our first obligation, which is self-evident from my previous remarks, is to let people know they are doing something worthwhile. We must provide a means of letting our employees know they have done a good job. You as supervisors must convey this to your groups. Don’t just give orders. Provide the opportunity for your people to do something important. Encourage them.
On the contentious question of whether a manager needs to understand the realities of their people, Packard offers a clear rebuttal of the argument that management skills are sufficient.
Some say you can be a good manager without having the slightest idea of what you are trying to manage, that the techniques of management are all important. There are many organizations which work that way. I don’t argue that the job can’t be done that way but I do argue strongly that the best job can be done when the manager or supervisor has a real and genuine understanding of his group’s work. … I don’t see how a person can even understand what proper standards are and what performance is required unless he does understand in some detail the very specific nature of the work he is trying to supervise.
As to what traits management should exhibit …
Tolerance is tremendously significant. Unless you are tolerant of the people under you, you really can’t do a good job of being a supervisor. You must have understanding— understanding of the little things that affect people. You must have a sense of fairness, and you must know what it is reasonable to expect of your people. You must have a good set of standards for your group but you must maintain these standards with fairness and understanding.
Lest you think Packard was a socialist, he argues that profits are the only path towards achieving the management philosophy he laid out.
I want to say that I have mentioned our primary objectives, but none of these can be accomplished unless the company makes a profit. Profit is the measure of our contribution to our customers— it is a measure of what our customers are willing to pay us over and above the actual cost of an instrument. Only to the extent that we can do something worthwhile, can provide more for the customer, will he year in and year out pay us enough so we have something left over. So profit is the measure of how well we work together. It is really the final measure because, if we cannot do these things so the customer will pay us, our work is futile.
If you liked this you’ll love:
11 Simple Rules For Getting Along With Others — More timeless advice from David Packard deepening our understanding of his philosophy on work and life.
The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball — Thinking about the fundamental lesson of biology — the need to survive — offers a potent lens through which we can view our relationships.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
— Alice Walker
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker‘s new book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good offers a welcome refuge from the day-to-day politics that splash across the headlines. Booker shares his wisdom on the difference between love and tolerance, why cynicism is a refuge for cowards, an important lesson his father taught him, and the reason that, while we’re indebted to the past, we must pay it forward.
Booker offers a distinction between love and tolerance:
Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, Booker professes:
I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
We do owe a debt that we can’t pay back but must pay forward.
Adding to the belief in small acts of kindness, Booker observes:
[A]lways remember that the biggest thing you can offer on any given day is a small act of kindness.
On an important lesson his father taught him:
Son, there are two ways to go through life, as a thermometer or a thermostat. Don’t be a thermometer, just reflecting what’s around you, going up or down with your surroundings. Be a thermostat and set the temperature.
And finally, in an interview, he boldly admonishes people hiding behind cynicism.
We all have so much power that we don’t use. And I think it’s because of cynicism, which is a toxic spiritual state. Cynicism is a refuge for cowards.
“What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.”
— Lewis Thomas
In his wonderful collection of essays, The Lives of a Cell, the biologist Lewis Thomas displays a fairly pronounced tendency to compare humans to the “social insects” — primarily bees and ants. It’s not unfair to wonder: Looked at from a properly high perch, are humans simply doing the equivalent of hive-building and colony-building?
In a manner Yuval Harari would later echo in his book Sapiens, Thomas concludes that, while we’re similar, there are some pretty essential differences. He wonders aloud in the essay titled Social Talk:
Nobody wants to think that the rapidly expanding mass of mankind, spreading out over the surface of the earth, blackening the ground, bears any meaningful resemblance to the life of an anthill or a hive. Who would consider for a moment that the more than 3 billion of us are a sort of stupendous animal when we become linked together? We are not mindless, nor is our day-to-day behavior coded out to the last detail by our genomes, nor do we seem to be engaged together, compulsively, in any single, universal, stereotyped task analogous to the construction of a nest. If we were ever to put all our brains together in fact, to make a common mind the way the ants do, it would be an unthinkable thought, way over our heads.
Social animals tend to keep at a particular thing, generally something huge for their size; they work at it ceaselessly under genetic instructions and genetic compulsion, using it to house the species and protect it, assuring permanence.
There are, to be sure, superficial resemblance’s in some of the things we do together, like building glass and plastic cities on all the land and farming under the sea, or assembling in armies, or landing samples of ourselves on the moon, or sending memoranda into the next galaxy. We do these together without being quite sure why, but we can stop doing one thing and move to another whenever we like. We are not committed or bound by our genes to stick to one activity forever, like the wasps.
Today’s behavior is no more fixed than when we tumbled out over Europe to build cathedrals in the twelfth century. At that time we were convinced that it would go on forever, that this was the way to live, but it was not; indeed, most of us have already forgotten what it was all about. Anything we do in this transient, secondary social way, compulsively and with all our energies but only for a brief period of our history, cannot be counted as social behavior in the biological sense. If we can turn it on and off, on whims, it isn’t likely that our genes are providing the detailed instructions. Constructing Charters was good for our minds, but we found that our lives went on, and it is no more likely that we will find survival in Rome plows or laser bombs, or rapid mass transport or a Mars lander, or solar power, or even synthetic protein. We do tend to improvise things like this as we go along, but it is clear that we can pick and choose.
With our basic nature as a backdrop, human beings “pick and choose,” in Thomas’s words, among the possible activities we might engage in. These can range from pyramid building to art and music, from group campfire songs to extreme and brutal war. The wide range, the ability to decide to be a warring society sometimes and a peaceful society sometimes, might be seen as evidence that there are major qualitative differences between what humans do as a group and what the social insects are up to. Maybe we’re not just hive-builders after all.
What causes the difference then? Thomas thought it might well be our innate capacity for language, and the information it allows us to share:
It begins to look, more and more disturbingly, as if the gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from all the rest of life. Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.
We are born knowing how to use language. The capacity to recognize syntax, to organize and deploy words into intelligible sentences, is innate in the human mind. We are programmed to identify patterns and generate grammar. There are invariant and variable structures in speech that are common to all of us. As chicks are endowed with an innate capacity to read information in the shapes of overhanging shadows, telling hawk from other birds, we can identify the meaning of grammar in a string of words, and we are born this way. According to Chomsky, who has examined it as a biologist looks at live tissue, language “must simply be a biological property of the human mind.” The universal attributes of language are genetically set; we do not learn them, or make them up as we go along.
We work at this all our lives, and collectively we give it life, but we do not exert the least control over language, not as individuals or committees or academies or governments. Language, once it comes alive, behaves like an active, motile organism. Parts of it are always being changed, by a ceaseless activity to which all of us are committed; new words are invented and inserted, old ones have their meaning altered or abandoned. New ways of stringing words and sentences together come into fashion and vanish again, but the underlying structure simply grows, enriches itself, and expands. Individual languages age away and seem to die, but they leave progeny all over the place. Separate languages can exist side by side for centuries without touching each other, maintaining their integrity with the vigor of incompatible tissues. At other times, two languages may come together, fuse, replicate, and give rise to nests of new tongues.
The thing about the development of language is its unplannedness. There’s no language committee directing the whole enterprise. Not only is language innate, as Noam Chomsky and his student Steven Pinker have so well proven, but it’s extremely flexible based on the needs of its users. All the strange things about our language that seem so poorly drawn up were never drawn up at all. (What kind of masochist would put an “s” in the word lisp?)
One commonality to the social insects that Thomas does see is something he calls Getting the Air Right – his description of a really productive human group as a direct reflection of a really productive bee colony. In this case, he’s talking about getting great science done, but the application to other human endeavors seems clear.
The following piece, pulled from his essay titled Natural Science, is worth reading and re-reading closely when you’re tempted to “command and control” others around you.
I don’t know of any other human occupation, even including what I have seen of art, in which the people engaged in it are so caught up, so totally preoccupied, so driven beyond their strength and resources.
Scientists at work have the look of creatures following genetic instructions; they seem to be under the influence of a deeply placed human instinct. They are, despite their efforts at dignity, rather like young animals engaged in savage play. When they are near to an answer their hair stands on end, they sweat, they are awash in their own adrenalin. To grab the answer, and grab it first, is for them a more powerful drive than feeding or breeding or protecting themselves against the elements.
It sometimes looks like a lonely activity, but it is as much the opposite of lonely as human behavior can be. There is nothing so social, so communal, and so interdependent. An active field of science is like an immense intellectual anthill; the individual almost vanishes into the mass of minds tumbling over each other, carrying information from place to place, passing it around at the speed of light.
There are special kinds of information that seem to be chemotactic. As soon as a trace is released, receptors at the back of the neck are caused to tremble, there is a massive convergence of motile minds flying upwind on a gradient of surprise, crowding around the source. It is an infiltration of intellects, an inflammation.
There is nothing to touch the spectacle. In the midst of what seems a collective derangement of minds in total disorder, with bits of information being scattered about, torn to shreds, disintegrated, deconstituted, engulfed, in a kind of activity that seems as random and agitated as that of bees in a disturbed part of the hive, there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.
In short, it works. It is the most powerful and productive of the things human beings have learned to do together in many centuries, more effective than farming, or hunting and fishing, or building cathedrals, or making money. It is instinctive behavior, in my view, and I do not understand how it works.
It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.
What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.
Still Interested? Check out another great biologist, E.O. Wilson, writing about his experiences in science, or yet another, Richard Dawkins, writing about why chain letters work as a method for understanding natural selection.