Linking the Four Pillars of Brain, Empathy, Social Structure and Knowledge

On a wave in Canada, May 2019

I’ve just returned from an awesome vacation with two of the best kayakers in the world — Benny Marr, and Tyler Bradt — who were running a clinic in Ontario for both mastering surfing big waves, as well as improving overall wellness and mindfulness through yoga practice. Both are awesome humans, as well as elite athletes (and kayakers, of course.) In my younger days, I had pretty good kayak game, but these guys are wildly next level.

What was as interesting was the fact that they are not just kayakers, but also truly world-class athletes. When I would flag in strength, one of the two would shoulder my boat, along with their own, and start running up the hill to the car, or the put-in, or whatever. I could barely keep up holding the paddles. And when I’d flag with my confidence, they’d shove my fat ass in the boat, help put my skirt on, and give me the requisite attaboys to go out there and continue the battle. As I told them “Can we actually get a walrus to surf?” The answer turned out to be “yes” — if you have two coaches like them.

Needless to say, if you’re a Class III-V boater, I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. We also ate awesome vegan food, and had some great philosophical discussions.

Three Tree Poses, May 2019

One of the things I was put on the spot to explain was this:

“Why do I really need the complexity in our Theory of Empathetic Evolution?”

When I got back home, I wrote the piece (slightly edited) that I sent to them below. It forced me to draw a meaningful table that shows how the Dots are Connected. When you stack neural function next to empathy, social structure and knowledge structure, you gain a ton of different system intervention leverage points where you can create meaningful change.

Here’s the table I came up with. Not perfect, but not bad.

The text is a little small, but you get the idea

So… for Tyler and Benny, this was my pitch for the book/blog —


Why should you put the requisite time into reading this book or my blog?  It’s not easy, it’s from a dude you met on the river, and it uses a bunch of big words and concepts (like value, or v-Memes) that you’ve likely never heard before, and almost no one else uses.

The main reason – it shows you how to construct a map for solving large, complex problems, and how you have to develop both your people, and your organizations to the level where they can a.) process knowledge of a given complexity, and make decisions when they have to, and b.) know when they don’t know shit, and either compensate or learn so they can win.  The book shows the linkages, so if you can’t leverage one of the items in a given column, you may be able to leverage another column to get at the same developmental outcome.

What our Theory of Empathetic Evolution covers is the connection between four columns that govern how humans know things and create perspective.  These four things are:

  1.  Brain Structure
  2. Expression of Empathy – how we connect
  3. Social Structure and their Value Sets – the structure of our connections and what values naturally emerge from that structure
  4. Knowledge Structure – the varying complexity of the knowledge of the different things humans know.

How do you use this – or really, how do you know an action you need to happen will actually succeed (or at least has a chance of success?  Probability plays a role, especially as complexity increases!)

The short version is that the people have to have the brains for it, the ability to connect, the right organization, and the right structure of knowledge.  If one of these is lacking, you should expect potential failure – or, more importantly, you should back up and develop the situation in that category so that you can have success.

Let’s look at a simple situation – a river trip where you’re the leader.  You say “watch me, and run this line.”  You peel out, and the other two people with you follow and make it.

From the matrix above, it means:

  1.  The people had fast enough brains to mirror your motions.  (Brain/Neural Structure)
  2. You were connected enough to them (and them to you) where they could mirror you. (Empathy Development)
  3. Your social structure was well-formed enough (a bunch of homeys where you’re the best boater) that the basic hierarchical structure worked well enough. (Social Structure)
  4. The knowledge of where to go (you pointed the line on the bank) was not so complex, nor did it require them to make any decisions, that you all nailed the line. (Knowledge Structure)

One can now do a deconstruction if that weren’t the case.  Let’s say you made the line, but your two buddies beatered (‘to beater’ is a colloquialism for blowing the move, and a ‘beater’ is someone who beaters 🙂 ) the drop.

  1.  Maybe the people didn’t have fast enough reactive skills to mirror your Big Move.
  2. Maybe you met them at the put-in, and not established enough rapport.
  3. Since you didn’t know them, you were really isolated individuals, not really a tribe, and certainly not a hierarchy where they respected your authority.
  4. You used hand signals they couldn’t interpret, or the sequence was too complex and their brains couldn’t hold on to the information in the short time you discussed the line at the put-in.

How would you fix this so you’d have a positive outcome the next time?  In the four categories, you can start to see how solutions emerge.

  1. You make those loser beaters practice their moves to speed up their reaction time.
  2. You run a couple of easier rivers with them so they know you are the resident badass and that following you is smart.
  3. You line up your signs so those beaters don’t misunderstand you.

You can ALSO see that there are higher complexity answers – and if you execute them, you will gain a much larger range of ability in your combined crew – not just the ability to run one drop.

  1.  You hang out enough with them so they know when you’re joking or not (rational empathy, Theory of Mind.)
  2. You make them practice prescribed moves so they have them in their toolkit, and when you tell them to do something, they can do it. (Authority-driven/Legalistic/Algorithmic Rules/processes.)
  3. You develop their ability to read water so they take the general rules you give them, and develop their own heuristics (rules of thumb) so they can gain reflective agency on their own abilities and run that rapid without watching you (Tyler/Benny can do that, but I can’t without more practice.)
  4. You paddle with those beaters so much, they’re your community, and they help you by giving you deep insight on being a beater, which helps the next time you show up at the put-in alone looking for someone to paddle with.

The book and blog connect in multiple and diverse ways those four columns.  What’s interesting is:

  1.  If you reflect on the deeper meaning of the four categories, you’ll likely find you already intuitively do these kinds of assessments for all sorts of situations.
  2. The book makes the modes of interactions EXPLICIT in a way that enables much more complex planning.  That’s really the purpose of it.  You go, assess a group AND the problem complexity, and then make a decision how the plan HAS to be structured to pull off the task.

So… the book ain’t that easy.  But it is the way you can make maps, that considers other people’s maps, to pull of really big things. 

This also illuminates the more complex figure shown below, which is explained in the book.

The older, likely more confusing depiction of the larger model

The OTHER cool thing that can happen, when you internalize enough of this, is to know when you’re on the receiving end of bullshit, as well as the degree of the bullshit. Take the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. Quinn does a solid job of contrasting the bottom of the above figure (Leavers are Tribal, Takers are Authoritarian/Legalists.)  But Quinn doesn’t give much headroom for the higher modes that count on self-authoring and heuristics.  So… Quinn gets a moderate bullshit score.  He’s relatively pure down in the lower v-Memes, but falls apart when you start talking about something like the ability of refugees to create new lives in a different country. But he can’t begin to discuss in any meaningful way EITHER of you two’s lives.  As Robert Kegan would say, both of you are profoundly self-authoring and self-transforming.

Contrast that to Sapiens and Yuval Harare, where he extolls the virtues of hierarchy, and conversations between the Little People is fingered as gossip.  “Gossip” is often how we build empathy with each other.  Big Bullshit score there.  But once again – once you know something about Harare personally – he goes away for three months every year in solitary just to meditate – you know something else is going on. To me, anyone who isolates themselves for three months a year is just out there.  It takes most of us a week in solitary to start losing it.  Empathy much? Eh, not so much.

And here’s a little preview insight/enlightenment – Authoritarians (which Harare most definitely is) all have poor consequential thinking abilities, which means that Homo Deus, which I haven’t listened to, is going to really painful when I queue it up in my audiobook stack that I listen to during bike rides, because everyone is always asking me about it. 

And needless to say, most books about the future are written by Authoritarians.  It doesn’t mean they’re all wrong, and maybe we’re fucked, but I’d still rather go down fighting.  That’s what my consequential thinking tells me.  It ain’t over ‘till it’s over – spoken by a true enlightened master – Yogi Berra.

As a practice exercise, though, of course, the theory is designed actually for “wicked problems”, you can now deconstruct Lars Holbek’s famous advice:

“Don’t fuck up… and don’t boat with bozos.”  J

Stay in touch and talk between you.  It’s gonna be fun when I finally see both of you again.

Hopefully this sheds some light on all of this, for those that were missing something. For my math friends, there’s a whole ‘other column to be written on how much of this is a meta-level Jacobean/normalization process for complex systems. But that will have to wait.

3 thoughts on “Linking the Four Pillars of Brain, Empathy, Social Structure and Knowledge

  1. There are discussions on the AAAS on these issues related to genetes/environement or nature/nurture determination of IQ, , depression, ASPD (antisocial personality disorder), ADD, etc.

    Some posted a Yogi berra quo0te about theory vs practice tho i forget it—something theory while difficult can solve problems, its just that it can’t because its not practiced.

    Those discussions related to above theme are at times heated , conclictual, and polarized—eg some say ‘i8ts the genes’ , others say it the environment,. I ternd to emphasize the social and knowledge aspects (eg different expes have diffierent knowledge or theories and often talk past each and ignore other and publish in different journals. ).

    One person asked that since its a science magazine forum, that we keep social issues out of the discussions (though Science mag has many discussions of social issues). I find the forum somewhat depressing so it may be better to ignore them (like all of Facebook and the WWW), though they are my cojntact with science and academia apart from some inforal book and disucssion groups where i am also usually ignored. (To me they are dominated by (white male) people with academic credentials who are also autjhoritarians , and despite their credentials often are also not well read. Remind me of fundamentalists who think all they need to read is 1 holy text and become a convert.)

    I took a glance at a youtube video by Hari, and while some of it seemed ok (eg environmental issues..) i could only take 5 mintues ot it.

    APSD is characterized partly as people who refuse to obey authroty, do what they are told even if its is common sense (eg i have and had several substance use disorders) but sort of refuse treatment because whil agrewe with some authroities about wht not do—have these habits—i disagree with other things they tell me have to do wich is be like them. Another sign of APSD is ‘blaming others’ or the system rather than blaming yiourself and taking resoponsibility for it. But authoritains to me don’t seem to take responsbiity for what they do—to an extent walk all over and ignore other people.
    Sort of like bullies—even if they may not notice it. (efg for food, another problem i’ve deaolt with, eveh if you tell them what you dont want to eat—eg meat and sugar for me—i am continually being offered those because others think they are good. Its a fulll time job to be around them–sayig no all day.. Often you just give up and destroy yourself. )

    A few current therapists now do suggest its better to take a lighter tack to people with problems—just as some schools dont deal with diffuclt students by expelling them or punishing them—they try new approaches. However schools and therrapists like that often are rare, and also often are very expensive.

    ——–My math is so out of date and unused sort of like my fitness skills—i used to walk 12 miles a day or bike 30; sometimes alot more. now i rarely do 5. I hung out with the wrong people who i ciouldn’t to take a waik, etc. Jacobians I remember from solving couple equations in ophysics aand economics —now most of my math i just re-remember by looking at wikiedia or the Wolfram encyclopedia. Its hard tio know what to do with these any way–as Yogio Berra practice is harder than theory. One can sort of write down an equation to make the world utopia.


  2. I really appreciate the boating examples that you gave today. Helps me put your ideas into a context that I can use in my own life, personally and professionally.


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