There are No Such Things as ‘Generations’ — or are there?

In the rigging

Up on the mainsail yard, unfurling the mainsail without a harness, standing in my bare feet on the wires.  Because you can’t fall off if ya don’t let go…  Whitsunday Islands, 2006

I have to confess to some level of frustration about the whole ‘generations’ thing.  We live in a stew of these terms — Boomers, Greatest, Millennials, and so on.  They’re so NOT true as an individual discriminator, nor particularly valid.  But at the same time, they do prepare you for understanding larger changes in how larger societies evolve, and can give perspective on expectations in language and behavior.  A recent Slate article by David Costanza that came across my desk sums up the exasperated part of my perspective:

Generations and generational differences are intriguing and inherently appealing concepts. As such, the media will keep on reporting on them, academics will publish, pundits will talk, and consultants will sell to whoever is buying. But the science says that, despite their popularity, generations simply aren’t a thing. And until we recognize this, we will continue to waste time and resources while failing to understand how people really are, and are not, different.

I highly recommend you read the piece if it’s an area of interest.  I work with young people all the time, and the performance I see from them is so striking, especially from the normative expectation.  I’ve been doing it now for 30 years (this is my 30th year at WSU) and if I notice any difference in how I run my Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), it’s all in how I approach their personal development.  That’s the one thing I actually have some ability to affect.  And I do it through modification of the social structure that they’re used to in the classroom.  I’ll help you decode the ‘why’ of this below.

Naturally, the tools they have at their disposal have changed, and I’ve integrated those capabilities into the IDC.  But the students are still at the same place developmentally as all students I’ve had, with a different set of cultural sidebars than 30 years ago, and with every individual student laboring against their own traumas and internal fights.  They are certainly no more or less lazy.  They ARE egocentric, because that’s where their development has placed them internally, but no more or less than any group of students I’ve taught down through the years.  I find that I am less able to instantaneously emotionally connect with them, of course — they’re 21-24, and I’m now 55.  But I can pretty much guess what they’re going to do almost all of the time.  That’s what happens when you focus on evolving conscious empathy, and you happen to be me!

But for the record, let’s back up and understand young people in the late teens and early 20s.  In our Grand Theory of Everything, we sorted out that people’s behavior and thought profile consisted of the following equation:

Structure + Culture + Personal Development + Trauma Acceleration/Deceleration = Behavior

That’s a simplification of the larger equation (which, while I put in linear form, for the regular humans, of course contains nonlinear interactions for my mathematician friends out there) below.

Culture + Social Structure/Externally Promoted Empathetic Development + Individual Experience (Trauma Included) + Independently Generated Empathetic Development (level of mindfulness) + Epigenetic Influences + Genetic Disposition = Individual Behavior

Let’s scratch the Trauma stuff for the moment, and stick to the simpler version for understanding young people — especially those in the category of newly employable.  Here’s the larger developmental roadmap ( the Personal Development piece) that humans follow in our society.


My age categories that map to the progressive, nested v-Memes are as follows:

Survival — 0-4 years

Tribal/Magical — 3-8 years

Authority-Based — 5-16 years

Legalistic/Absolutistic — 9-20 years

—————————-  Trust Boundary (above relationships are most externally defined, below, independently generated) ———————————————–

Performance/Goal-Based — 20-35 (with a major solidification of maturity around 26, the age where declining neuroplasticity sets in.)

Communitarian — 35-50 years

—————————-  Second Tier — Self Awareness and personal monitoring and feedback matter ——————————————-

Global Systemic — 50-death

Global Holistic — 55-death

Just to reiterate — v-Memes are nested.  You don’t lose the lower development as you move up.  You just gain the capabilities of the higher v-Memes.  Also, once we move past Authority-Based, we start losing adults in development, though they can “jump up” when self-awareness hits in later life, though they will not be nearly as sophisticated in execution of lower, First Tier v-Memes.

A quick look at the numbers above shows that most new employees really don’t have a lot of independent, relational development, and hence display poor rational empathetic skills.  This is truly a function of age, and it means that means they tend to be egocentric, can’t really make their mind up based on their own experiences, and will likely follow the crowd.  As weird as this may seem, what this means is that the second term — Culture — including mostly the one they were raised in will dictate how they act.  As I’ve said many times, Culture exists as a sidebar, with elements from all the different v-Memes, but encoded in time-averaged beliefs that people operate by.  30 years ago, interracial dating was only starting to not be taboo.  Now, few bat an eye in the younger generation.  It is an accepted behavior.  Discrimination against LGBQT was normalized only 30 years ago.  Now, it is not permissible.

If one considers WHAT v-Meme a certain cultural behavior originates from, one can guess by examining history, and with some accuracy and certainty, be correct dependent on the society you’re looking at.  For example, lifting discrimination against LGBQT in Western society was definitely aligned with the evolution of the Communitarian v-Meme — treating all people in an egalitarian fashion.  (I do want to note that many Tribal societies were way ahead of Western culture in treatment of certain protected groups, so you’ve got to be careful ascribing one v-Meme to one set of surface-level behaviors.)  But once a certain set of behaviors became encoded in larger cultural beliefs, young people could be reasonably expected to also share those, even if their origination came from a higher level of independent development than, at first glance, where they are at.

Finally, the Social Structure component — our Social Physics part of the equation — will play heavily on how young people act.  And as the systems that we place young people in have become increasingly Authoritarian, we shouldn’t expect anything less than delays in independent relational behavior.  Any trip to a modern high school for anyone in their 40s or 50s is guaranteed to shock.  Students are buzzed in and out of locked doors for simply attending classes.  The days of aimless wandering the halls with the hall pass because you were a good, trusted student are mostly gone.  It is having an effect.

So what does that mean as far as understanding the profile of a typical 22 year old?  Compared to my ‘generation’, they are far more passive and obedient than we ever were — a function of the social structure.  They are far more open-minded toward different groups than I was — a direct effect of cultural sidebars.  And finally, they still have the same innate capacity to be developed and gain a broader set of empathetic, goal-based behaviors.  Though they may thrash more at the beginning (I see this all the time) with the expectation that the Authority will tell them what to do — they like that, and it IS a low-responsibility behavior — if placed in an environment where the social structure forces relational development, they will evolve and catch up with Performance/Goal-Based behavior.  Because they have neuroplasticity on their side.

And that’s how societies as a whole move forward.  It’s not guaranteed, but the quote by Theodore Parker, an 19th century Transcendentalist (Martin Luther King borrowed it from him!)

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

And of course, what is interesting is that what Parker was noting was that in his time, developmental empathy was still filling out the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme.  So “justice” was all he really had.  The subsequent paragraph gives more clues:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The arc of the organized world inherently will bend upward, to greater connectivity and empathy.  And if there are differences we observe in our young people, if we are self-aware ourselves, and not shocked by the same egocentricity we possessed when we were that age, we will see that, with the right circumstances, these young people will also push our society forward.  We only have to let it happen.

So — are there measurable generations?  The ten-year thing just drives me nuts, so No.  Society exists on a continuum of belief adoption, where culture and social constraints seen as permanent give way to new modes of thinking.  And Yes — young people’s belief structures are definitely different from mine when I was their age.  Like all things, it’s complicated.  But understandable.  And because we are all in a global society now, we simply can’t run the control experiment.  We have to proceed with the social dynamics we can create.  What I’ve written above is my shot at it.  And it’s all about empathy.

It’s hard to unpack everything I’ve written about on the blog for those that are unfamiliar.  But you can start HERE and HERE.

The 36 Stratagems — or How Low Empathy is no Real Strategy in Today’s World

Conor Zion

Conor, Spring 2018, Zion National Park

Having a bit of fun a couple of weeks ago, I came upon a classical Chinese strategy quote (can’t remember where) that I shared with my wife, who is a Taiwanese native.  It comes from a body of quotes, called the 36 Stratagemsa classic old Chinese compilation of clever pictorial word-plays that would fit well inside any MBA handbook out there.  Things like Kill with a Borrowed Knife (借刀殺人/借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)

  • Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.

are typical.  You can do your own Googling and find the various MBA types who have written about the genius of the various stratagems and how they’ll make you a “better” business person.  I don’t need to facilitate.  They’re basically all about falsely displaying empathy, and then screwing over a potential opponent.

What people will likely overlook, though, is the fact that these extremely refined strategies are all deeply seated in the Authoritarian v-Meme, and display psychopathic Chinese Authoritarian behavior at its finest.  They’re all designed around the theme that trust can’t be real, you can’t even really have friends, and that inevitably you’ll end up in conflict with your adversaries, which means you’re back to: ‘I win, you lose; You win, I lose; We both fall away exhausted — potential resolution solution set.  That’s the way Authoritarians resolve things.  There can be no true coming-together, because rational synergies are never in play.  And developed empathy? Bitch — please!

No one can question that the Chinese national political In-group/Out-group dynamics are the most refined in the world.  This has historically been made easier by population homogeneity, geographic isolation (they don’t call it ‘The Middle Kingdom’ for nothing) and the challenges of maintaining order for long time with tens of millions of citizens (the middle Tang Dynasty had over 50M people, and who even knows if you can believe census efforts from 1000 years ago?)  Once the Tang Dynasty was over, with its Confucian governmental influences, China went into its ‘stuck’ period, where one can argue they’ve only recently emerged with the ascendance of Deng Xiao Peng.  My Chinese history friends — feel free to correct me.  I’m no expert on all the back-and-forth of the following dynasties.

The 36 Stratagems are well worth a read.  My wife and I had a good laugh over them comparing them to university politics in general, but more to the point of how unsophisticated ersatz Modern Authoritarians are. Anyone from the Ming Dynasty would have beat them in a red second.

But they also show how when you enshrine in your culture the idea of loyalty only to designated In-Groups, regardless how clever you are in tricking your supposed opponents, you really screw yourself with regards to innovation.  Though I do believe this is changing, China still justifiably suffers from an ‘IP copy’ culture reputation.  Because when you can’t trust and integrate diversity, as well as give your people the space to generate their own relationships, your creativity may become very sophisticated indeed — one trip to China and the standard circuit around the shrines and temples will convince you of that.  But new ideas?   That’s just not the way the social physics shake out.  And everyone, sooner or later, gets pretty bummed out.  And THAT leaves you open to things like a small group of outsiders taking over your country, which is pretty easy when you have an opium epidemic.  Hmmm…

You might think about these types of mergings of culture and social structure facilitate  how any given organization or culture adopts to rapid change.  Not so much.  And yeah — you can create environments that make your bosses think empathy is a bad thing, and that the bosses need to weep in the C-Suite, feeling victimized that they have to make ‘tough decisions’ that screw over their lessers.  But over long time, it’s still a losing game.  Hundreds of millions of people have already participated in that experiment.  Feel free to draw whatever conclusions you want with the Russia-Facebook connection.

How Social Structure Arises from Empathy

Rogers and Timpana's

Old friend Rogers and the crew on the top of Snowbird, UT, March, 2018 — Mt. Timpanogos in the background

One of the things that is self-evident to the squirrels in my head, but seems at times elusive to others, is how the mean level of empathetic development of a group of people will create the social structure of a given community.  Naturally there are cultural influences that are all up and down the Spiral v-Meme ladder that influence the actual behavior of the people in a given social structure — remember that our Theory of Everything includes cultural sidebars (as well as a host of other factors, including personal development) as well as social structure as primary drivers in human interaction.  But empathy remains at the root of the social structure evolution.

How does this exactly work?  Let’s go back to our Empathy Pyramid and do some word tagging that may give some insight into how all this works.  Here’s the final Empathy Pyramid we left off when we introduced the notion of Conscious Empathy.

Empathy Slide

Now let’s add some understanding to how each level of empathy works, and make a new graph.  On the right side, I’ve added a new column of behavior drivers that come out of each new level of the Empathy Pyramid.  Let’s remember that with all things like this, we get a nested stack, meaning the levels below are included in each of the upper levels, so Emotional Empathy includes Mirroring Behaviors, and so on.

Empathy-Social Behavior Pyramid English

Empathy-Social Behavior Coupling Graph

Unpacking this, we can now see how empathy creates given social structures.  It should be said that there are always fuzzy boundaries between the given levels — purity is not a function of the human (or rather, sentient) condition.  Automatic behavior doesn’t do much for persistent social structure, so it’s no surprise it’s at the bottom with mirroring empathy.  If you see one of your buddies running from a lion, you’re likely to take off and start running as well.  But once the lion gets tired, there’s not much lingering social structure from the effect.  Lots of individual emotions, but not much persistence.

Up a level, Evaluative behavior is a cornerstone of emotional empathy, as well as primary force driving people into the next two v-Memes — Tribal, and Authoritarian.  First off, you have to evaluate who’s in your group/tribe, and who’s not.  Next up, if circumstances are right, you’re likely to figure out who’s the boss.  Is it the person who is most generous, or the person who can likely beat the next lion with a stick?  Status matters uber alles, with ranking and submission naturally emergent.  Everyone knows, in an Authority-based structure, if the boss is having a bad day.  And that starts creating the tree-like social structure stack we associate with Authority-based social structures.

Rational empathy comes up next, introducing the concept of personality-decoupled classification (‘engineers think this way’/ ‘you know about those lawyers’) and that ability — the ability to predict what someone might say leads to the stacks of hierarchies in the Legalistic mode.  But it doesn’t stop there.  If you want to reach goals (Performance v-Meme) you’re going to start collecting data on potential individual high performers you want on your team, and connect with them, once again creating the variation in the organization chart that happens when it becomes important for people to accomplish work.  And before you know it, the practice from that has caused you to bleed over into looking at people based on their individual characteristics — that good, old-fashioned Communitarian v-Meme.

As you age, and develop a more profound relationship with yourself, you know when you’re being virtuous, or being selfish.  Conscious empathy becomes a tool for larger ends, and then allows you to go along with, or assemble the circumstance/social structure you need, mapping elegantly to the Global Systemic v-Meme, the first of Wilber’s Second Tier.  And then, of course, once we’re on that level, we realize we’re just a little fish swimming in a very big pool, surrounded by all sorts of building block social structures that interplay with each other in all sorts of different ways.  A human’s got to know their limitations — we can never jump out of the water high enough to really know exactly what’s going on.  But we can feel the waves in the pool.

Hope this helps!  Here’s Don Beck’s awesome little social structure sidebar so you can now understand and enjoy the interplay of the evolving empathy-driven story inside each of us, as well as our social organizations!

spiraldynamics social structures

Quickie Post — the Trans-Cultural Diabolical Power of Sugar

Tool Chest 4

A pair of drawers with hand-cut dovetails from a recent tool cabinet I finished.  December 2017

My wife sent me the video below this morning — a concatenation of ads in Japanese for Van Houten Cocoa, a typically sugary chocolate drink.  It’s aimed at Japanese women, and it’s fascinating.  Highly recommended to watch:


The basic theme of the ad is a woman, attempting to fill some level of traditional gender roles, becomes frustrated with the lack of connection with her son, husband, and daughter, then explodes in a heavy-metal rage that is only soothed by drinking a sugary beverage.  There’s no symbolism that needs to be decoded to understand the point — in the absence of connection/serotonin (one of our empathy/We/happiness-eudaemonia hormones), the best thing to do is harvest the benefit of a solid shot of dopamine (our primary self-centered pleasure hormone.)  Which, of course, reinforces the rage reaction by creating more biological drivers toward impulsive behavior.

Terrifying.  The processed food companies know EXACTLY what they’re selling.

Finding a Cure for Cancer — or Why Physicists May Have the Upper Hand


Outside Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon — March 2010

Well, I’ve had a modestly stressful couple of days writing about the Parkland School Shootings.  Of course, the primary driver for the shootings is empathy, or rather, a lack of it.  But explaining that to people is challenging, especially how scaffolding matters, and solutions will have a number of timescales in order to fix the problem.  I have lots of friends from all over the political spectrum, and those with good information all have a piece of the solution.  But getting divergent viewpoints to coalesce around a comprehensive solution inevitably involves v-Meme conflicts, and therein lies the rub.  So it goes.

So… instead of writing about that, I’m going to write about how to cure cancer!  I wrote last week about another piece by Jason Fung, a nephrologist who also writes about diabetes, intermittent fasting, and ketogenic diets.  This week, Fung discusses in this piece about why cancer research is stuck, and how physicists might help.    What’s awesome about Fung’s writing is that he is one of the only people I know (besides myself) who fingers that the problem is really an information structure problem that’s preventing us from curing cancer.  For me, that’s super-cool.  Here’s a great pull quote from the article:

Oncologists tend to view cancers as some kind of genetic mistake. Some mutations making cells go crazy and become cancer. But to Drs. Davies and Lineweaver, another cosmologist and astro-biologist, the behavior of cancer cells is anything but berserk. Not at all. It is a highly organized, systemic method of survival. It’s no accident that cancer survives everything the body throws at it. It’s not a random collection of genetic mutations. Developing those specific attributes is as likely as throwing a pile of bricks into the air and having them land exactly as a house. Considering the body’s massive deployment of weaponery to kill cancer cells, it is impossible that cancer survives only as a freak accident. A freak accident that happens to every cell in the body, in every organism known to exist? If something seems ‘stupid’ but works (survives), then by its very definition, it’s not stupid. Yet cancer researchers and doctors had all treated cancer as some kind of random collection of stupid genetic mistakes. No, there was stupidity going on, and it wasn’t the cancer’s.”

Dr. Davies is a physicist at the University of Arizona, who, with no previous experience, was commissioned by the National Cancer Institute to start asking some basic questions about how cancer forms, and understanding it from ‘first principles’ — looking at the laws of physics/energy balance/etc., instead of looking at it in terms of a data cloud and then attempting to understand that cloud.

I’ve already made the point that we should expect no more from medical researchers (or nutrition researchers, or almost any other health/biology researcher) than to map their fragmented social structure onto the authority-based knowledge that they’re creating.  Fragmented Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies will do that, and they will inevitably produce pointillist interpretations of the endless amounts of data they measure.  But it gets even worse.  Inevitably, totally data-driven researchers will also trot out their one tool for attempting to pull interpolative or extrapolative meaning from data — the linear regression curve.  What that means for those who don’t work in the sciences is simple.  They will collect a bunch of data, with any inference of connection or meaning between that data considered ‘confirmation bias’ (even though one really can’t escape implicit bias when one decides how and what to measure!) and then create a plot, and draw a line with a slope across it.

How this reinforces the brain wiring then becomes obvious.  (Well, obvious to me!  🙂  )  They come up with a linear plot that creates one solution, that then maps to the meta-linear thinking that exists in Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies.  No multiple solution thinking.  No competing/shared hypotheses.  That straight line is ‘my way or the highway’, and as we’ve seen with all other social systems, we bring in the information/stimulus/food source that reinforces the social system.  And since it’s pretty much status-driven, instead of goal-driven (who’s the most famous cancer doctor!) understanding goes wanting.  Biological systems are highly nonlinear in behavior, and often have multiple stable states — multiple truths that might be observed from data.  And meta-linear hierarchies just aren’t stacked to understand them or produce knowledge about them.  And, as Fung notes, it takes nigh-on forever to get anywhere.  He voices his frustration in this pull quote:

Medicine, on the other hand, rejects new theories like a prom queen rejects pimple faced suitors. If ‘The Man’ says that calories cause obesity, then all other theories are shouted down. If ‘The Man’ says that cancer is caused by genetic mutations, then all other theories may apply elsewhere. They call this process ‘peer-review’, and glorify it as a religion. Galileo, for example, was not a fan of peer review by the church. In physics, your theory is only good if it explains the known observations. In medicine, your theory is only good if everybody else likes it, too. This explains the rapid pace of progress in the physical sciences and the glacial pace of medical research.”

Embedded in this pull quote is a conundrum.  Fung, while trashing the biologists and medical researchers, is, like the NCI, singing the praises of the physicists.  What DO the physicists have that the biologists (and psychologists, and sociologists, and many others) don’t have?  All scientists are more-or-less organized in hierarchies, and as such, should be constrained in advancing their fields one endlessly debated data point (or transformative rule) at a time.  The reasoning is as follows — Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, as status-driven social structures, will only value the known and the reliable.  They remain bastions of cognition — knowing, and will very likely penalize meta-cognition, which is really that complex space of knowing what you don’t know, as well as having some fuzzy definition of what real unknown unknowns are out there.  Such Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, to put it concisely, as they grow ever more sophisticated, are going to do great with knowledge.  But when it comes to wisdom, well, they’re going to suck.

What do physicists have that the others don’t?  They have a well-defined metacognitive system that jumps past the limits of their social structure.  We call it math, and the world is filled with recognition for its more formal name — theoretical physics.  What theoretical physics enables us to do is extrapolate outside the data, and doesn’t hinder our ability to intelligently guess.  Math gives us the ability to infer dynamics, and more than just straight lines on a scatter plot.

And there’s more.  You can’t practice physics without an appreciation for all things nonlinear.  Gravity, for example, only behaves linearly close to the ground.  All the other things that actually make our world run involve extensive nonlinear behavior, which inevitably leads to possible multiple solutions.  (For those math-impaired, who can barely remember Algebra II, remember that a quadratic equation has 2 roots — that’s multiple solution thinking!)  And things like gravity inevitably involve complex gravitational wells and potentials, that lead to all sorts of interesting things, including how you can hurl a satellite around a planet and get it to speed up if you do it just right.

This kind of thinking wasn’t always accepted in the physics community.  It’s really in only the last 150 years that this got going.  I watched  this episode of the National Geographic series on a cross-country plane flight, and it showed the inevitable v-Meme conflict between a young Albert Einstein, who embraced this kind of thinking in developing his Theory of Relativity, and other older, darker scientists who were largely empiricists getting ready to plot points.  Since most of the episode was about Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, and this is what I remember, I think it also confirms I am a space alien.

I’m not quite sure that this makes physicists overall more empathetic.  Algorithmic thinking, even if it leads to larger Guiding Principles insights, is still rooted in the discipline, which inevitably leads back to the hierarchy, and that both creates and reinforces social behavior and low-level empathetic evolution.  The famous physicist, Albert Einstein himself, was likely a crazy narcissist, and decidedly impaired when it came to empathetic interaction.  I’ve got a whole theory about once your IQ passes a certain point, and you have the ability to create entire worlds inside your health, it’s a sticky wicket– because you can justify basically anything inside your noggin.  Validity/reality — or social control from your orbitofrontal cortex be damned.

And you’ve got to wonder about people like father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.  It would be interesting to find some statistics on a behavior like sexual harassment (decidedly anti-empathetic!) and see if it were lower in the physics community.  But nonetheless, one can understand the adoption and integration of nonlinear mathematics into physics as an important cultural sidebar that encourages metacognitive reflection and speculation.

It’s a takeaway that the social sciences might heed — and actually start allowing some larger discussion of topics like I explore on this blog!  It may be that it is social structure uber alles dictates true deep empathetic development.  But developing more overarching guiding principles thinking is really what we as a species are desperately in need of.  Even if it is speculative on where we should head next.  Which is, of course, the dominant reason I write this blog.


Quickie Post — Understanding the Dynamics of Cancer Requires a Social Structure that can Create Cellular Dynamics


I’ve probably posted this one before, but I’m feeling nostalgic today.  Braden and Conor in front of the Globe Theater in London, 2007.

Flying across my Medium feed today came this article by one of my favorite weight-loss doctors, a nephrologist named Jason Fung.  Dr. Fung is a proponent of Intermittent Fasting and low-carb diets as modalities for treating all sorts of illnesses, but specifically, of course, metabolic syndrome.  In this piece, Dr. Fung talks about what has failed in understanding cancer in Western medicine, which as he describes it is a failure of appreciation of cancer cell dynamics, which are larger and systemic, as opposed to the genetic hypotheses of narrowing down on smaller and smaller genetic scales to find the “one bad gene” that messes everything up.  He makes the point that a statistical number of cells have an ability to go bad, and that they mostly don’t, as long as larger metabolic dynamics are healthy.  Here’s a great pull quote:

“The same problem exists in the SMT. We’ve zoomed into cancer too closely — right down to the genetic makeup of the cancer and it is gibberish. We can make no head or tail of cancer’s origin and therefore make no progress towards treatment. Over 100 oncogenes and over 15 tumor suppressor genes have been identified, but we don’t know what it all means as a whole. Instead of three blind men and an elephant, we have thousands of blind researchers and cancer. Each sees a tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle and can’t see the whole. The rate of mutation necessary to develop a cancer is far, far more than the known rate of mutation in human cells (Loeb et al 2001). Normal cells just don’t mutate anywhere close to what is needed to produce cancer. Further, while every cancer has mutations, it was not known what the ‘denominator’ was. That is, how many cells had mutations but no cancer. This turned out to be pretty high. You could alter 4% of the genome and still have a cell that looked and acted completely normally. This is a remarkable high degree of tolerance (Humpherys 2002)”

Students of this blog will recognize that what this is really is a classic social structure <=> knowledge structure development of Conway’s Law.  We’ve created these fragmented, low empathy/low information exchange Authoritarian/Legalistic hierarchies in the medical research profession where instead of cross-associating among many disciplines and understanding the hormonal flows that create cancer, we have researchers competing for status at smaller and smaller scales by working to identifying “THE CAUSE” of cancer.  This kind of research is quite literally killing us.

What this turns into is a clarion call for a new way of approaching medical research.  It’s not just enough to have interdisciplinary teams if you keep the same disciplinary boundary fragmentation.  You have to have enough people, interested in sharing information, with this important property:

Those people have to not just share information. They have to learn about each other’s disciplines enough to hypothesize and connect across them.  No one gets shut down at lunch because they don’t have a degree in sub-discipline A.

In short, they have to evolve their empathy.  It’s the only way we’re going to get to solutions in any reasonable amount of time.

Dr. Fung’s piece is well worth the read.  Highly recommended.

Quickie Post — Just because the question of empathetic cetacean intelligence is really dead, doesn’t mean you can’t beat it…

Backlit Tree Hoh Rainforest

Backlit tree in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, WA, August 2017

Well, by now, everyone knows I loves me some self-organizing, emergent cetacean intelligence.  And here’s another post, from those radicals at the Global Economic Forum, about cetacean self-organizing behavior and the larger social brain.  Here’s a pull quote:

“We found that species with larger brains live in more structured societies and have more cultural and learned behaviours. The group of species with the largest relative brain size are the large, whale-like dolphins. These include the false killer whale and pilot whale.

To illustrate the two ends of the spectrum, killer whales have cultural food preferences – where some populations prefer fish and other seals. They also hunt cooperatively and have matriarchs leading the group. Sperm whales have actual dialects, which means that different populations have distinct vocalisations. In contrast, some of the large baleen whales, which have smaller brains, eat krill rather than fish or other mammals, live fairly solitary lives and only come together for breeding seasons and at rich food sources.


Quelle surprise — meso-scale, coordinated empathetic hunters get it going on with coordinated communication and information sharing, and empathy, of course.  And they evolve.  Just like we humans.  Which means it’s not the hardware so much that drives information creation — though you have to have a big enough computer.  It’s the software.  Let’s hear it for those v-Memes!  Think about that for your Sunday meditation!