Ducks, Squirrels, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Many months ago now, sf überfan Jan Stinson interviewed me for the Internet Review of Science Fiction — just before IRoSF lapsed into dormancy. In all honesty, I kind of forgot about it in the meantime. But the chrysalis has hatched, the new glorious IRoSF is letting its new wings dry in the sun (and waiting to grow a couple of legs — the reborn site isn’t entirely functional just yet), and there, in the resurrection issue, is Jan’s interview. It was conducted in those heady days between my nomination for all those awards and my failure to win any of them, so I’m uncharacteristically cheerful throughout. I spout the usual thoughts about adaptive sociopathy, but with a smile.

I also cite a couple of classic examples of faux altruism in nature — one involving ducks, the other ground squirrels — that I recycled in my interview with Locus. I guess I got lazy. (Then again, they’re good examples.) For what it’s worth, I think Jan’s interview contains the clearer summation, since that interview was done via e-mail and I could thus take time to edit myself into eloquence. The Locus interview was live, and I was, shall we say, less articulate — and while they gave me the opportunity to clarify myself post-hoc, the accursed BHO1 kept me from straying too far from giddy incoherence.

Anyway, check it out. Jan asked some pretty fresh questions (and forced me to admit that I couldn’t come up with an original title if my life depended on it), so there might even be some stuff over there you haven’t already heard from me a dozen times.

Oh, and to anyone still following the On Spec thing, Derryl Murphy — another OS alumnus — weighs in with an insider’s perspective on his own blog. The whole thing even warranted a couple of mentions on Cancult.ca (I really owe that Darbyshire guy a beer or two next time I get out to the west coast…)

1 Baptist Honesty Override.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday February 21 2008at 05:02 pm , filed under interviews, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “Ducks, Squirrels, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction.”

  1. Not really on topic here, but something I’ve noticed through several posts. You do a lot of IOUs in beer.

    A beer based economy might be fun. Better than the fairytale credit system in my mind.

    Would you write a book for a copious amount of beer?

  2. Actually, I really only drink scotch these days.

  3. Per the interview, is there a genetic link to sociopathy? Can you inherit it in the same way that you could inherit schizophrenia? Is there a connection between a sociopath and the odd “neuropathic” creatures you theorized in your posts long ago about the people with big holes in their brains and the possible evolutionary advantage of people who let their reptile brain do more work?

    Modern theories of sociopathy remind me of a few things. First, obviously, it seems like Neitzsche’s description of the Overman pretty much falls in line with the same description of a sociopath. Also, in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, PK Dick’s androids seemed pretty sociopathic with their lack of empathy and self-obsession. The novel is much less sympathetic to the androids than the film Blade Runner.

    Also, it reminds me of Julian Jayne’s theories of the development of consciousness in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral. In it, one of his many ideas was that deception is a relatively new development in human experience, and that the ability to look at yourself objectively and then create a false story (to lie) was a skill that provided an advantage and was therefore taught by the cultures that benefited from it. Until today, lying is a common ability.

    If this behavior is learned and not genetic, will that be how what we call sociopathy today will be the norm a few generations from now?

  4. Actually, I really only drink scotch these days.

    So you and Rose are not so different after all!

  5. jason said

    So you and Rose are not so different after all!

    That wasn’t me! That was some other peter, posting under my name!

    I should copyright the damn thing. Or at least slap on some DRM…

  6. John Henning said…

    Per the interview, is there a genetic link to sociopathy? Can you inherit it in the same way that you could inherit schizophrenia? Is there a connection between a sociopath and the odd “neuropathic” creatures you theorized in your posts long ago about the people with big holes in their brains and the possible evolutionary advantage of people who let their reptile brain do more work?

    I don’t know of any work that actually tracks sociopathy down through family trees (although I bet there’s some out there). My understanding, however, is that sociopaths do not arise preferentially from traumatic childhoods; they’re just as likely to show up in loving, supportive and stable families as any other kind. That suggests that sociopaths are born, not made; but whether they arise from the genes or from some developmental glitch during gestation, I have no idea. (The guys with the big holes in their brains were, I’d guess, the result of developmental problems.)

    Also, it reminds me of Julian Jayne’s theories of the development of consciousness in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral.

    I almost read that book once, back in the mid-eighties. It’s been so profoundly influential. I got as far as the phrase “mounding fullness” and had to stop. Although I’m perfectly willing to believe it got better after that.

  7. The basic premise of Jaynes’ mammoth book is used very well in Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell’s FROM HELL. Basically, he casts his Jack the Ripper as a Freemason who suffers the specific form of bicameral schizophrenia that Jaynes describes as the norm in prehistoric and early human civilization. I’m sure you know the basics – in the ancient past, humanity was basically a group of semi-conscious schizoids who heard voices they called gods. The gods were actually the voices from the right brain talking to the left brain, but as major natural disasters and other factors forced different cultures to come into conflict and essentially “think faster,” they developed the deceptive consciousness that we all have today. The gods suddenly “disappeared” into heaven and were no longer present, and those who could not imitate this new consciousness were wiped out by the much more strategically enabled tribes who could. He even goes on to suggest that the Spaniards were able to destroy the Aztecs despite being outnumbered 1,000 to 1 because the Aztecs could not get over their certainly that these men were gods.

    It’s a bit too broad to be completely true and I’m sure by now many of his points have been overturned, but it does cast an interesting light on exactly what consciousness is and how the ability to decieve seems like a very central element to its development.

    I’m also curious how our modern day consciousness has been transformed by the development of mirrors, photography and video. It’s strange to think, but, geologically, not that long ago, people rarely actually saw their own image or even their reflection very often or clearly. As one poet wrote, (paraphrase) “There was a time before mirrors, when we only saw ourselves from the eyes of those who loved us.”

    I’ve got around 10 mirrors in my apartment, and many times that in photos and videotapes. I wonder how seeing ourselves separate from ourselves has changed the way we conceive of our identities. Especially in this very divided age where you often have several identities (at home, at work, at the pub, online, MPRPG, Second-Life, etc.)

    Going back to Jaynes, is or was there a genetic component to the ability to deceive? Or once one group developed it, was it simply adopted through a kind of socially evolutionary process of cultural progression by all other groups? Though sociopathy may be genetic, could it also be transmitted culturally simply from the way society rewards and punishes behavior? If sociopaths prosper in our society does that provide an example for others to follow as they grow up whether or not one’s parents are sociopathic? Is the parental influence really significant anymore?

  8. John Henning said…

    … those who could not imitate this new consciousness were wiped out by the much more strategically enabled tribes who could.

    But as I recall (and this far I did get), Jaynes’ argument is that we were nonconscious even in historical times, when we were writing Greek texts and suchlike. Which implies that even God-hearing automatons were capable of written language, architecture, and war — all without the integration that sends the voices into oblivion. I find it hard to believe that human interactions prior to that point were “conflict-free”— so why the sudden selective pressure against bicamerality?

    I’ve got around 10 mirrors in my apartment, and many times that in photos and videotapes. I wonder how seeing ourselves separate from ourselves has changed the way we conceive of our identities.

    For me it’s not mirrors, but cameras. I’m rarely surprised by the dashing, charismatic dude I see when I look into the mirror, but I am frequently taken aback by the goofy, asymmetrical bananaheaded doof who seems to stand in my place whenever anyone takes a picture of me, or even video (so it’s not an artefact of static-vs.-dynamic images). What’s up with that?

  9. I guess it depends on how you look at it. Jaynes believed that the early Greeks, those that Homer refers to, were bicameral, but the later “Classical” Greeks such as Plato, Aristotle and the playwrights like Sophocles and Aristophanes were obviously as conscious as we are today (more than most people, in fact).

    Homer, of course, composed his epic works long after the events they described were supposed to have occurred. We know this from the fact that the warriors in the Iliad use chariots as basically taxis when historical evidence showed that the Mycanaens and other Mediterraneans were just as proficient in chariot warfare as the Ancient Mesopotamians. However, Homers tales were told during a Greek Dark Age when hoplite warfare was the norm.

    During this age and presumably earlier, writing existed, but the primary narrative medium was oral storytelling. Somewhere along the way someone wrote these stories down, but since they were as composed as songs, Homer or some original poet could still be considered their author.

    The point wasn’t that there was no conflict withing civilizations during the “bicameral” era, but that even warfare and other conflicts were mediated by very homogenous rules. The Iliad is about a war, BUT both the Trojans and the Achaens fight by the same rules, worship the same gods and apparently share a common language and culture in other regards as well. The fact that during a war, so much time would be spent on elaborate funerals, festivals and games to honor the gods and so on also seems to indicate that the people were in thrall of some kind of strange consciousness that we would probably call crazy if it ever arose in one of our own (and often has, of course).

    I think that recent discoveries cast a lot of Jaynes’ specific assumptions in doubt, but his basic premise is that until a major natural disaster around 3,000 BC, the civilizations at the time, all surrounding the mediterranean, had only marginal contact with each other and were very formalized internally. Then the Isle of Crete, the center of the powerful and advanced Mycanaen Civilization exploded in a massive supervolcanic eruption sending a tsunami to rain havoc on the other coastal civilizations. This “Great Flood” created the Black Sea and was possibly the source for the myths of the flood and the Tower of Babel in the Bible.

    The Tower of Babel is a particular fave of Jaynes since the basic concept, he believes, is that before the disaster all cultures were unified and not conscious of themselves in the way we are, and after the disaster, the resultant wave of refugees and migrants forced a lot of intermingling, chaos and violence that led to the supremacy of the conscious point of view where you didn’t have to wait around for a god to tell you what to do when you encountered something unfamiliar.

    He points to the difference between the earliest books and stories in the old testament and the newer ones. Abraham and Job are afflicted by a god that seems schizophrenic in His behavior, whereas the later Ecclesiastes is obviously the work of an introspective author.

    He also points out the difference between Homer and later greeks and he seems to make the point that The Odyssey seems to chronicle the change from bicameral to conscious in Odysseus’ encounters on his voyage as he is forced to push his ability to decieve and think ahead to its limit. I suppose that he sees the composition of the Odyssey indicative of the kind of consciousness development that the Dark Age pushed onto the Greeks at the time.

    Another writer, Arthur Zajonc makes similar observations (not exactly the same) in the great little book Catching The Light when he writes about the visual description of the world in Homer’s Iliad.

  10. Man, I have *such* a huge hole in my background on this stuff. Sometimes I’m amazed anybody takes me seriously at all.