A young man named Salem paces outside an office building. His clothing is a bit old and worn compared to that of most of the smartly-dressed people entering and leaving the building, a multi-story structure on a busy street. His coat, perhaps not necessary on this warm day, seems a little large and bulky for a young man of his build. As a cluster of people enter the building, he joins them and waits to enter.

        To what motives do we ascribe Salem's appearance and actions, and where will those motives lead him within the broad spectrum of human behaviors? For example, in June 1989, one lone man's behavior consisted of stepping in front of an oncoming column of tanks in the streets of Beijing, to block those tanks from the protests in Tiananmen Square. In September 2001, the behavior of several educated well-to-do men in the cockpits of jet airplanes consisted of flying those airplanes into the towers of the World Trade Center, in order to destroy those towers. In each case, humans overcame their self-preservational instincts and nearly sacrificed, or did sacrifice, their lives for what they perceived to be an abstract greater good. In 2004, a total of 94,635 forcible rapes of women by men were reported in the United States. In the same year, roughly four million children were born in the United States and almost all were taken home to be nursed, cuddled, rocked, bathed, and sung to by at least one loving parent. In each of the latter two cases, humans behaved according to biological drives, commonly with little appreciation of the larger impacts of their actions.

        These bits of activity exemplify the extremes of human behavior, both in terms of the desirability of the behavior and in terms of its direction from biological drives on the one hand or conceptual motivations on the other. We obviously have an interest in promoting desirable behaviors such as healthy raising of young and promotion of liberty and democracy, and an interest in leading humans away from violent and destructive behaviors. We have an interest in understanding what Salem is up to. But how do we do it?

        The biologist E.O. Wilson tried to answer that question in 1998 with his book Consilience Wilson argued that our best chance to understand humanity is by understanding individual humans as biological beings. Further, Wilson argued, the best way to study humans and human affairs is the experimental method of physics, which has obviously been hugely successful in achieving an understanding of the physical world and has generated the technologies that characterize our comfortable and powerful twenty-first-century lives.

        If we accept the consilient model of human behavior, we accept humans as well-dressed imaginative animals who, while living in the comforts that our intelligence affords us, are nonetheless driven by the same motivations as our Pliocene ancestors. Any of us who would like to eat another piece of pizza or who just caught themselves noticing the charming appearance of a twenty-something human in our company knows that there is some validity to that model. However, the model also explains rape and genocide equally well. If it is our only explanatory model, it becomes a justification as well, in that the worst acts of individual and societal violence come to be viewed as the "natural" state of human affairs. In that model, jets burst into the towers of the World Trade Center as the result of genetic motivations for which their pilots can no longer be held morally responsible. We have good reason to question that model of human behavior.


        Anyone familiar with science must also question the consilient notion that methods emulating the iconic experiments of physics can really be useful in investigating and understanding human behavior. Physics is a field blessed with just four forces that work at different scales, so that an experiment about gravity, for example, can safely ignore the strong force. It has a limited number of particles, with each proton having the same characteristics as those that every other proton has had or will have through all of past and future time. These characteristics of separation of forces and invariance through space and time make experiments work well and be meaningful. However, once one steps upward in scale to the systems studied by geologists, oceanographers, and meteorologists, experiments don't work so well. Too many things affect too many other things to allow experiments holding all but one variable constant, and the scale of the systems studied makes experimentation unfeasible anyway. Even with all the graduate students, NSF funding, and lab space of which a full professor can dream, you can't run a multi-billion-year experiment to test the behavior a watery life-covered planet. And imagine the costs of sufficient replication to get statistically meaningful results.

Chapters 2 and 3 of Transilience discuss experimentation and other forms of research in Physics and in the natural sciences.
        These problems with experimentation extend all too readily to human systems. Social scientists have performed experiments on human behavior for over a century now, and even Wilson, the advocate of the experimental method in human study, dismisses the results as "banal". If the experiments of social scientists have produced little knowledge of use in understanding communities and societies, it's because communities and societies are too complex for experimentation. To borrow the terms of physics, social systems have innumerable "particles" (e.g., people, symbols, ideas), each with its own unique characteristics; all of those "particles" change though time; and "forces" (e.g., hunger, greed, religion, and dreams of utopia or empire) overlap in scale and effect. The result is that no one could hope to enact a social-scale experiment with one independent variable (degree of tyranny, perhaps) and all other factors held constant. And imagine the consent forms to be filled out.

        If the consilient model offers little hope of providing either an effective methodology or a societally useful model for understanding human behavior, where do we turn? One new answer takes its name from the same vein that Wilson mined. If "Consilience" is to "leap with" the methods of physics and the concepts of biology toward a model of human behavior, "Transilience" is a view of the world that "leaps across" from the mechanistic world of traditional physics to the more complex and opportunistic world of biology and thence to human affairs. In this view, humans are biological entities distinguished by their use of symbols - the use of words and numbers, language and icons, theories and theologies, fashions and fantasies. Just as biology emerges from physical being, utilizing nothing but physical matter, but producing different characteristics because of unique biological arrangements of that matter, so too symbolic being arises from biological being, using nothing but physical and biological matter, but producing distinctive characteristics because of its unique, dynamic arrangements. In the Transilient view, it's critical to match method (for example, experiment, observation, or interpretation) with material (physical, biological, or symbolic). In fact, consideration of the issues of material and method raised above allows Transilience to generate a whole new theory of knowledge, from physics to symbol-use.








The book Transilience discusses this theory of knowledge in its Chapter 12 and Appendix 1.

        Taking the use of symbols seriously requires admitting that symbols are real material things. That's not easy, and for millennia humans have tended to view language as ephemeral and insubstantial, if not something like magic. However, language is not unlike other material entities. For example. compare language usage with a wave. A non-physicist might naively argue that waves don't exist - that they are not material. For example, a wave passing across the surface of a body of water diminishes into flatness, just as a word vanishes into silence. A wave passing across that water can't be picked up or isolated from the water through which it passes, just as a word can't be meaningfully isolated from the context through which it travels. We nonetheless concede that waves exist, because we can see or hear them, we can measure their characteristics, and we can observe their effects on other matter. Words likewise can be seen and/or heard, we can characterize them by type, and we can see their effects: we can see workers respond to instructions, we can see voters and shoppers influenced by messages, we can see soldiers advance into danger in response to nothing but words.

        Current events substantiate that symbol-use has material effects. Anyone looking at squiggles of ink on a piece processed wood pulp may feel their heart race in fear, may burst into tears of joy or sorrow, or may shake their fist in anger - and all this would be a mystery to anyone unappreciative of those squiggles of ink as symbols. At larger scale, a journalist modulates his throat, tongue and lips to emit atmospheric vibrations that are symbols conveying the idea that a soldier on an island in the Caribbean has put an ink-specked piece of paper in a ceramic basin -- and riots half-way around the world kill hundreds of people. A piece of ink-specked wood pulp wrongly conveys the idea that someone in the jungles of Africa has traded uranium to someone in the deserts of the western Asia, and another person in America modulates his throat, tongue and lips to emit atmospheric vibrations conveying all this - and soon a war begins that takes thousands of lives. Someone on the northern shores of Europe spreads some ink in curves and lines across a page -- and within a few days buildings in Damascus, Beirut, Tehran, and Maiduguri burst into flames. Meanwhile, healthy young men and women strap explosives to their bodies and detonate themselves. Other healthy young men and women risk horrible deaths to carry medicines into virus-ridden jungle villages, to save the lives of people who can be no more closely related than thousandth cousins to these young angels of mercy. None of this makes any sense in terms of traditional physics or quantum mechanics. None of this makes any sense in terms of biology and evolution. It only makes sense if one appreciates the power of symbol-use in motivating human behavior.

        Symbol-use takes on remarkable patterns. For example, it is time-and-space binding, tying together events that are spatially and chronologically incongruous. You and I can sit on a bench in Central Park and debate what exactly happened at the battle of Marathon. For the moment, our minds function as though we are there amidst the hoplites, at an event removed 2500 years in time and 5000 miles in space from the park bench on which we sit. Galvanometers attached to our palms and chests would nonetheless confirm our level of excitement as we watch the battle rage. Furthermore, symbol-use allows fictionalization: you and I can further debate what would have happened if Napoleon and Dwight Eisenhower had commanded the two armies engaged, and if one or both had commanded a tank brigade. We can even imagine that one side or the other possessed a superphysical impetus, an obligatory destiny, that favored its success or failure. The example illustrates that if physics is mechanistic and biology is opportunistic, symbol-use is "fantastic", both in the sense of its capacity to create the unreal and its power to motivate. If the idea of Ike at Marathon seems irrelevant, consider the space-and-time-binding power of a text written by a Russian revolutionary in 1917 to incite behavior in late-twentieth-century Peru, or of a text written in the Middle East centuries or millennia ago to incite very real, physical, and significant behaviors in Buffalo, Baghdad, and Bali today.


        So what does the Transilient, rather than Consilient, paradigm offer us with regard to human behavior? The diagram at the right, which admittedly resembles the work of Rube Goldberg, is a flowchart outlining how the environment, biology, and symbol-use combine to produce social behaviors. As an illustration, let's assume you just noticed that four children are trapped in a burning home near yours (that's the environment). To use the terms of theorists of language, environmental conditions are transmitted to individuals via direct contact (e.g., the pain of a burn injury), indexes (the sight of another person's wound), signs (the cries of pain from a injured friend), and symbols (the spoken report of pain of an injury). Those inputs are subjected to interactions of biology and symbology, such as channeling (e.g., "I should risk injury for the good of my community" or alternatively "Someone else is better trained for this situation"). Another kind of interaction of biology and symbology is amplification ("If I risk injury for the sake of the tribe, I will receive a medal" or "I should flee because my tribe needs my special abilities in other areas"). Yet another is fictionalization ("If I die in the effort for my tribe, I will go on to another existence in which I will watch sports and eat dark chocolate forever" or "I think I hear the fire truck coming, so I shouldn't get in the way"). Fictionalizations can also be more metaphysical, and in some cultures they might include "Fire is the physical embodiment of the positive power of the universe" or alternatively "Fire is the visible manifestation of all that is evil".

        As we move from the left side of the diagram to the right, the possible results of these interactions (not compromises, but interactions) are behaviors. They might include dashing into a burning house, running from a fire, shouting epithets at the fire, summoning help, or just standing and watching. With repetition over time, these behaviors establish social structures (e.g., neighborhood loyalties, volunteer or professional fire departments, citizen-of-the-year-awards, 9-1-1 phone systems, insurance companies, orphanages, etc.). They thereby lead to behavioral ensembles (in our example, patterns of community cooperation or, alternatively, alienation and societal dysfunction). Feedbacks from these behaviors and social structures include modification of the original environmental conditions (fire codes) and learned predisposition and reinforcement of some of the original behaviors (first-aid classes, and training in rescue techniques). The feedbacks can even involve evolution via selection of biological predisposition for certain behaviors (greater reproductive success for those of us prone to actions considered heroic or, alternatively, elimination from the gene pool of those of us who can't recognize an intractable situation).

        Symbol-use and language also create the capacity for moral judgment. Through them, we assign evaluative terms such as "good" and "bad" to configurations of matter that carry no moral value in the world of experimental science. As we ponder what to do about the four children imperiled by the flames, physics and chemistry inform us that there is nothing innately "bad" about carbon dioxide and water vapor or "good" about molecules of multiple carbon atoms bathed in aqueous solution. In fact, carbon dioxide would be the equilibrium condition of carbon in our oxygen-rich atmosphere and thus seemingly the more philosophically satisfying state. Evolutionary biology similarly tells us that we have no motivation to save those four children, so long as they are no kin of ours, and that we would be foolish to risk our lives, our reproductive capability, or our capability to support our offspring in any effort to rescue those children. Any explanation of what we should do in response to the emergency next door, and any prediction of what someone else will do, is not understood well through physics or biology alone. The response of symbol-using being is better understood in terms of a symbolically mediated process where behaviors are assigned non-physical and non-biological moral designations like "good" and "bad", "brave" and "cowardly", or "noble" and "callous".

        If the Transilient model moves beyond a purely biological explanation of human behavior and thus dismays consilient biologists, it also frustrates anti-consilient thinkers who venerate the power of words and ideals. Those folks can be found among humanists on the left who hold that every thing is constructed entirely and only by language - that, in the words of the deconstructivist Jacques Derrida, it's "language all the way down". They're also found on the right, where the human body is believed to be only a physical empowerment, or impediment, of an ethereal human spirit. However, neither denial of the reality of fire nor declaration of spiritual superiority over fire will long sustain the human behavior of walking through roaring flames.

The book Transilience discusses the Motivate model in its Chapter 11.





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        As Salem walks into the building's foyer, he seems reluctant to step away from the cluster of people with whom he entered. His lips move as he says a few words, but there is no particular person to whom he appears to be speaking. Is he saying good-bye to his distant family? Is he making one last prayer to his god? Is he practicing what he will say after he breaks away from the crowd and pulls a gun to rob the branch bank on the left side of the foyer? Or is he rehearsing the words he will say to the pretty young woman that he has seen working at the bank many times, but never has had the courage to speak to her?

        The behaviors that Salem is about to enact may have grave consequences for the world. Those behaviors arise through the interaction of biological capabilities with symbolically mediated visions. Salem is just an individual, but the same can be said of all our behaviors and their global consequences. Our behaviors as the well-to-do of the Western world, where Americans are one twentieth of the world's population but account for one quarter of its energy use, deserve a transilient bio-symbolic analysis too. How do we account for, and what do we do about, the greed that has so alienated the rest of the world?

        The Transilient paradigm suggests that what we call "greed" results from both our biology and our symbolic capabilities. From the biological side, animals have drives to acquire the resources they need to survive and to reproduce. Among many mammals and especially among primates, those drives include status drives, because higher social status has historically enabled higher rates of reproduction. Resources and status go together: newer clothes, a more expensive hairstyle, and a fancier car will enhance my chances of mating with the attractive human in the third cubicle over from mine at my workplace. However, humans exaggerate their resource acquisition in at least four ways, all of which arise from the symbol-using capacities.

        First, because of the massive technological power enabled by our symbol-using capacities, humans do not experience the physical limits on acquisition experienced by most species. We can carry over acquired assets for at least a decade, if not a century. We convert physical acquisitions (e.g., crops grown, ores mined) into symbolic units (money) so as to store resources across space and time. We also create symbol-strings that preclude others from stealing our stored assets (i.e., we agree on laws against theft). These symbolic mediations allow individual humans to sequester resources far beyond the most greedy squirrel's biological capacity to nuts.

        Secondly, because of our symbol-using capacity, we humans can imagine an infinitude of assets and exploitations. We can imagine owning an entire island, by which we mean having the power to exploit all of its resources in any way we choose. In fact, some of us do own small islands. Nothing is to stop us, however, from imagining owning the proverbial "small nation", and if not that, why not a large nation? And if not that, why not an entire planet? Some of us really do talk about "owning it all." Our symbolically-enabled capacity to envision the world beyond our immediate physical vision enables us to imagine owning or exploiting parts, if not all, of that entire world. Even the most greedy squirrel hasn't heard about, read about, or seen advertisements about all the delicious kinds of nuts found all around the world. Lacking such symbolic capability, he or she cannot aspire to own, or even sample, them all.

        Thirdly, just as symbol-use allows symbol users to envision more extensive acquisition, symbol-using capacity allows symbol users to envision more extensive need. Having stored enough resources to survive the year, we can envision future years of hardship for which we would be wise to harbor resources. Having provided for the next few years, we can envision an old age in which we will need resources that we will no longer be able to produce. Having provided for our old age, we can envision a future in which our offspring would profit by our present acquisition of resources, particularly thanks to our symbolic storage of physical wealth as money and our symbolic agreements forbidding its theft. Symbolic being allows imagination of need for an essentially infinite future. No squirrel gathering nuts for biological survival through the coming winter is driven by the thought of trust funds for its great-grandchildren.

        Fourthly, but probably not finally, add in the human symbolically-induced capability to fictionalize. These fictionalizations operate at large scale, as in "Something (nature? fate? Destiny? an invisible controlling power?) wants us to have the resources presently in the control of others". Add in a riff of the symbolic capability for moral judgment: "The people whose resources we covet have committed actions that invalidate their claim to those resources" or "Our use of those resources is more enlightened than use by their present owners". Alternatively, you can do this at a more personal level of fictionalization: "Our family's hydrocarbon-fueled vacation to the Virgin Islands is a service to humanity because the kids will learn about sea life." All this hinges on symbol use. To the best of our knowledge, no squirrel has ever dreamed up these sorts of stories to enhance his or her enthusiasm for robbing his or her neighbor's cache of nuts.

        These examples illustrate that humans have both an innate biological drive for some kind of acquisitiveness and symbolic capacities that, in the terminology of Transilience, "amplify" the human biological capacity for greed. As inherently symbol-using animals, are humans therefore doomed to be greedy, each of us seeking to acquire the entire universe? That is clearly not the case. Some people, and some peoples, are far more greedy than others. For example, in modern America, the dominant culture dictates that one display one's wealth to the public by means of a freshly painted home, a groomed lawn of monocultural grass, the growth of at least some non-food flowering plants, a driveway paved with concrete or asphalt, one or more relatively new-model large automobiles, and clothing of recent manufacture. The larger the home and grounds, the better, in this system. All of this requires resources: land, petrochemicals, ores, and agricultural products. In other cultures, display of wealth is considered embarrassing, and homes, lawns, and clothing are consciously designed to be inconspicuous rather than ostentatious. Even within their homes, the people of some cultures are far less prone to large-scale acquisition than people of others. This is not to say that status drives and even display of wealth may not have universal bases among human beings. It is to say instead that some cultures amplify these bases more than do others.

        If that's at least a start on a Transilient analysis of our resource-consuming culture, what's the Transilient solution? One directly symbolic remedy is to instill values that ridicule ostentatious consumption - that laugh at those of with three houses, three cars, and an ever-changing wardrobe. Such philosophies already exist ("Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth"), but they are largely ignored. Another strategy is to maintain a collective safety net (a symbolically mediated creation, just like a collective defense system) to reassure each of us that failure to hoard will not lead to an old age sleeping on park benches. A collective educational system (another symbolically mediated creation, just as is a collective highway system) would assure each of us that we wouldn't have to hoard so much wealth that we would be able individually to spend exorbitant sums on our children and grandchildren. Legal limits on salaries of corporate executives, a symbolically mediated construction no more artificial than laws against theft, would bring greater security to both workers and investors. None of these strategies is new with this writing, but their logic is more readily seen in a Transilient context. No one of these strategies would solve all the problems of our consumptive culture, but they and more in combination would lessen, rather than exacerbate, the problems presently excused in the biological determinists' model of human behavior. As a result, our culture might not be the target of anger from around the world.


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        So who is Salem? Is he Salem Hasian, a young Palestinian seeking a better life for himself and his family by applying for a job in an office in Tel Aviv? Is he Salem Said, a young Palestinian about to achieve martyrdom and reach paradise as he enacts revenge for the desecration of his homeland and for the oppression of his people? Is he Salem Jefferson Jones, named after two towns in Oregon and now a medical student offering his services to an international aid society at its offices in Los Angeles? Or is he Salem Bryan Brown, whose fundamentalist religious training and notion of moral values have led him to take both physically and symbolically forceful action against the offices of a movie production company that he believes is corrupting his society? How we understand these different Salems, and how we educate our children to produce one or the other of these Salems in future generations, depends on our understanding of human motivations. The Transilient model provides a new way to create a better understanding than the one that has led us to the troubled world in which Salem finds himself today.





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