Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On Human Nature, Bots, Grace, and a Few Good Pigs

It's depressing to listen to the news and arrive yet again at the conclusion that war and violence seem fundamental to humanity. Maybe it's The Way of Nature, a theme I mentioned at the start of this blog (echoing the opening lines from The Tree of Life film.) In this essay I offer some offbeat evidence of humankind's warlike nature, then bring in two disparate sources -- one scientific and one Evangelical Christian -- suggesting how The Way of Grace may trump the Way of Nature.

 Consider first this unlikely demonstration of humanity's warlike nature. It comes from an article about the first artificial intelligence gaming bots to pass the Turing "human-ness" test.

The Turing test, named after Alan Turing, "is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior, equivalent to or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human" (from Wikipedia). Evidently, after some years of trying, videogame programmers at last created a computer program that operates game bots that fight convincingly like bots operated by humans.

The report, from October, 2012, said an ongoing challenge to develop realistic computer-run bots had finally yielded two winners:  programmed bots that fooled 52% of players into thinking the bots were being operated by real humans. Bots that were actually played by humans were guessed as being human-operated by just 40% of players, on average. The key to more-human-than-human bots, according to programmer Jacob Schrum, is their ability to mimic human foibles.
“People tend to tenaciously pursue specific opponents without regard for optimality,” Schrum says. “When humans have a grudge, they’ll chase after an enemy, even when it’s not in their interests."
“In the case of the BotPrize,” Schrum says, “a great deal of the challenge is in defining what ‘human-like’ is, and then setting constraints upon the neural networks so that they evolve toward that behavior. 
“If we just set the goal as eliminating one’s enemies, a bot will evolve toward having perfect aim, which is not very human-like. So we impose constraints on the bot’s aim, such that rapid movements and long distances decrease accuracy."
The artificial-intelligence programming of the bots operated a bit like natural selection, only in this case the selective force driving bot evolution was "appearing human" rather than survival of the fittest (i.e. leaving the most offspring). Any programming changes in the bots' behavior that led to them being judged as non-human were eliminated. Changes that led to greater apparent "humanness" were retained. The human-like behaviors the programers found were bearing a grudge-- ruthlessly pursuing an enemy (even when it was not in the interest of bot survival)--and being less than a perfect shot at high speed and long distance -- pretty much the Way of (human) Nature.

Now consider two very disparate sources on Grace in human lives:  the grandson of a Pentacostal televangelist, and a sociological study of the history of New Guinean tribal wars.  Possibly because they are so far removed from one another, I was strangely reassured by their joint message: Drawing from ancient wells of wisdom and tradition, there's a chance the human race can overcome violent natural tendencies.

I probably would never have known of or listened to  Drew Sumrall, the grandson of a famous Pentacostal televangelist but for a tip from emergent church guru Brian McLaren, who used his blog one day to tout Sumerall's online sermon. Quoth McLaren, "Pay attention to Drew Sumrall - he represents what is happening among many thoughtful children and grandchildren of more conventional conservative Christians in America."

Curious, I had a look at the pouffy-haired, smartly-suited young Sumrall. His look and the swarm of Bible quotations at the start of the video had me expecting the usual televangelist prosperity gospel. Instead, Sumrall described Jesus as an advocate for  "an egalitarian collective that suspends all tribal identities."  After flipping through examples of our 21st century tribal identities -- race, political party, gender, social networking groups, church denomination -- Sumrall said the Gospel and Pauline letters give us a Jesus that urges rejection of group affiliations. Instead, we're to join the nobodies, the "unwanted, excremental remainder of society... the refuse of humanity." Christ's blessings were "for those who would never fit in... the lost, the least, the sick, the weary."

But, Sumrall observed, that's all of us. "We're all broken," he said. From the guy sleeping on the street to the super-rich rock star, all would say they "don't fit in." We join in what Jesus was doing not by sharing our inclusion, but by joining the excluded. "To arrive at success, we must fail... empty ourselves of ourselves." Sumrall says the natural evolution of nomadic rivalry is towards "worry, envy, anger, violence, death." Alternatively, he says, Jesus calls for the end of the feral being that lies within each person -- giving up our tribal and familial ties in favor of Grace.

The next evidence of the possibilities for grace comes from the far side of the world -- warring Enga tribes in Papua, New Guinea, as studied by University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner and Nitze Pupu, a blind Enga law school graduate. Their study, reported in the  Sept. 28, 2012, issue of the journal Science looked at the incidence and mortality from battles among the 110 Enga tribes.

Enga tribal village magistrates returning
from negotiating a cease-fire to a tribal war
in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea
A press release for the study says that until the 1950s, the Enga were largely isolated from the outside world, and waged their wars with bows and arrows. But in the 1990s, young people and mercenaries took up semiautomatic rifles and shotguns with devastating consequences: 500 wars over 20 years killed 4,816 people--about 1% of the Enga population.

Wiessner describes the chaos: "Missions and high schools were burned, entire valleys vacated, thousands became refugees and government services and development were disrupted." Enough was enough. Wiessner says the Enga turned to peace as they were driven off their land and "totally exhausted with war. The could see it was unproductive."

At that point, traditional village justice returned to the scene. In contrast with Western justice systems, the emphasis of the indigenous system was on restoration of relations through mediation and compensation -- traditionally involving payment in pigs. Hotheads get sent back to their villages to drink coca-cola (the modern-day substitute for chewing on sugar cane, we're told). Local politics and future relationships of the tribes are factored into village court decisions, and Christian ideology (embraced by most Enga) backs up the peace-making of the village courts.

Indigenous justice through village courts "...made it possible to control the wave of violence after the adoption of guns in a way that neither the colonial powers nor state could manage," says Wiessner. She found that wars were stopped more quickly, with fewer deaths from 2006 to 2010, and a sharp drop in the number of wars in the following year as village courts increased control. Where Western-style justice led to fines or jail terms for 10% of cases in District Courts, traditional intertribal courts produced a compensation order, mediated settlement, or agreement to settle out of court in 98% of cases. The average number of deaths per war was 3.7 in pre-colonial times. It rose as high as 19 per war in the early 1990s. By 2006-2010, there were an average of five deaths per war.

The Enga's tradtional system of dispute resolution "is built on restoring respect, accepting liability and responsibility, and paying compensation," says Wiessner. In contrast, "The Western judicial system is for a broader anonymous society. Our system is effective for taking offenders out of circulation – which theirs isn't – but often the offender doesn't accept responsibility or compensate, so the victim gets nothing."

Weissner says the Enga were able to draw on traditions that predated contact with Europeans. "Social technology from generations past was adapted to contain the impact of adopted modern technology. … New institutions build on former rules, norms and values; history matters."

When Australia assumed colonial rule in the 1950s, the Enga already possessed a 100-year history of suppressing violence through compensation via "pigs and other valuables – to make peace with enemies, boost a clan's reputation and re-establish the balance of power." In addition, the Enga developed "new indigenous, religious ceremonies ... to instill discipline in young men, honor ancestors and unite tribes." This included huge exchange networks -- tens of thousands of people exchanging hundreds of thousands of pigs.

These traditions declined as colonial armed adminsitrators took responsibility for maintaining peace. Warfare only intensified with social inequities after Papua New Guinea gained independence and  another tradition -- rejecting use of firearms in warfare -- disappeared in the 1990s. An arms race, abetted by businessmen, politicians and arms procured from the police and army led to devastating consequences.  "Extreme violence came when traditional, small-scale, face-to-face societies evolved into larger-scale, anonymous societies where people didn't know each other anymore," Weissner says. "People get into a brawl, or someone steals a pig, rapes a women or kills someone, and the clan must show that it has the strength to defend itself."

The authors allude to Steven Pinker's conclusion in Better Angels of our Nature--that humans are becoming less warring and lethal, but Wiessner and Pupu are uncertain whether the trend toward peace will continue in New Guinea. On the one hand, development and foreign aid could mean the Enga have more more to lose through the ravages of war. But on the other hand, development and population growth could lead to exploitation by multinational corporations, discontent and conflict over natural resources, and greater anonymity.
... As Enga society grows, clan members may be less likely to make compensation payments on behalf of kinsmen they barely know. If this happens, local institutions founded on principles of kinship, respect and restorative justice will not suffice, and the Enga may find themselves in another cycle of violence as the scale of their society increases, Wiessner and Pupu conclude.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but I now connect these three very different articles through a perspective I've got from an online course I took (The Science of Happiness from UCal Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center) and Jonathan Haidt's  The Righteous Mind. Riffing on evolutionary theory that allows the possibility that selection has sometimes favored cooperative human groups (rather than just well-adapted individuals), Haidt sees humans as being "90% chimp; 10% bee"-- that is, 90% devoted to self-advancement and 10% to hive-like behavior for our team, tribe, clan, group, homies, drama club, caste... etc.

He sees some sort of "hive switch" evolving in the human psyche more than 50,000  years ago. This change comprised a host of physiological, mental, and behavioral adaptations that reinforce cooperation. We get a rush of "reward" chemicals in our brain when we feel part of a team working (or singing, marching, dancing, playing, cheering, etc.) together. On the other hand, the same "hive switch" may explain a dark side of human nature: ill-will and even violence against those who are not part of our group.

Instructors for the GGSC course took us through the evidence that some of the most rewarding aspects of life come from social engagement, compassion, helping others, and involvement with goals beyond ourselves. From family to friends to contacts in the community and social capital -- engagement with others makes our lives happy, healthy, and satisfying. When this engagement extends to people outside our self-defined group, barriers, prejudices, and anxieties come down -- we start to see the outsiders as part of our tribe.

So back to the three articles above -- if the way of nature is our chimp-like, individualistic humanity, maniacally set on self-preservation (or clan-preservation) against our enemies, the contrasting way of grace is, as Sumrall recommends, identifying ourselves as family with the out-group. Or, as the Enga would do, restoring peace not with more violence, but a few good pigs.

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