Elements of Dynamic Network Analysis: 1. human nature

JOhn Terrell

Human beings are by nature highly social animals. Despite claims both popular and scientific, we also are not inherently selfish creatures. Yet we often seem self-centered. Why? Short answer: because we are looking out at the world from inside our skulls.

As my mother used to say, this is both good and bad. Let me explain briefly by offering you a few elementary observations about being human.

Your pragmatic brain

A fully functioning human brain is a remarkable compromise. Your senses are constantly feeding you input—lots of it—about what’s happening in the world around you, and also about what’s going on inside your body. If your brain were to pay close attention to all the details it is receiving about the state of things within and beyond you, it would rapidly become overloaded. That, of course, would make it useless to you as an organ dedicated to helping you in an admittedly self-serving fashion navigate your way more or less successfully from the cradle to the grave.

It is perfectly understandable, therefore, why your brain perpetually walks a fine line between paying too much attention to what it is being told by its senses, and too little.

Figure 1. “I swear they came out the box this way | by frankieleon” [https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/3576170595]
One way the brain accomplishes this delicate balancing act is to put things, people, or events striking it as more or less like one another into the same mind box—that is, into the same mental category. By this I mean what a dictionary says this word means:  “a class or division of people or things regarded as having particular shared characteristics.”

well-known rule of thumb illustrates the point I am trying to make: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. A more colorful example is shown in Fig. 1.

But here’s the rub. What if your brain draws the line between too much and too little in the wrong place? What if it doesn’t pay enough attention to what it is being told by your senses about the animal your brain has concluded must be a duck? More to the point, what if making such a categorical mistake leads to serious consequences? Say, mistaking a friend coming into a darkened room for an intruder. And impulsively you shoot your friend dead?

Clearly having a pragmatic brain lodged inside that bony vault up there on your shoulders can be both good and bad, just as my mother would observe.

A world of our own making

Here’s another observation about how humans deal with the world. If novelty is the spice of life, then from your brain’s pragmatic point of view, predictability is life’s bread & butter.

Put simply, the more predictable a situation or event is, the easier it is for your brain to categorize it. And then, if need be, respond appropriately (or not).

Figure 2. By Crusier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
It is again understandable, therefore, why as a species we humans invest so much of our time and effort (and money) into dumbing down the world around us to make the challenges we face as humdrum, predictable, and therefore categorical as possible.

By “dumbing down” I mean our species is remarkably skilled at remaking the world we live in to be less risky and uncertain than it otherwise would be for us. Said another way, we love to make what’s out there in the world fit into simple, convenient, widely applicable mind boxes, i.e., categories.

Humans are not the only creatures on earth who are predisposed to make the things and events they have to deal with as humdrum as they can make them. Many of the earth’s countless species are similarly committed in their own more limited ways—biochemical, physical, or behavioral—to enhancing their surroundings and creating favorable opportunities for themselves (we are not the only self-centered creatures on earth) by making things more suitable, more accommodating, more predictable. And for them, as well, more categorical.

This last remark is important, as I will be explaining in a later posting in this series. The brain's mind boxes called "categories" may or may not have actual words associated with them that we can use to talk about them. This is often why we may find it hard to put our ideas into words. But with this remark I am getting ahead of what I want to say in this first post. 

Figure 3. Termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia [By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA (Cathedral Termite Mound) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Classic examples of what other species do to dumb down the world for themselves would be beavers constructing dams to create ponds that help protect them against predators; termites building earthen mounds in Africa, South America, and Australia to live in; birds building nests; and earthworms improving the quality of the soil they move through by eating it and passing it through their bodies, over and over again, generation after generation, thereby making life easier and more fulfilling for the earthworms that take their place in the great circle of life.

Clearly, therefore, we are not alone as a species in being both able and crafty enough to improve our lives and living circumstances by making the world a safer and more predictable place to live in.

Even so, we humans are certifiably the Earth’s champions at the fine and skillful art of redoing the world to suit our needs as well as our fancies, however odd the latter may be (let’s all admit, shall we, that the artificial islands of the exotic tourist resort shown in Fig. 4 are an extreme example of our willingness to redesign the world to suit our fancies and our credit cards).

Figure 4. Palm Island Resort, Dubai, United Arab Emirates [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dubai_-_The_Palm_Jumeirah_-_panoramio.jpg]
Confronting our pragmatic and often self-centered ways

We have reason, therefore, to be proud of the fact that our species excels all others at creatively dumbing down the world we live in to make the challenges we face humdrum and predictable. But there are genuine risks involved. Why so? Because we are not truly god-like in our powers. We are not all-seeing and wise. We are not always as good as we may think we are at drawing the line between knowing too much about the world and knowing too little.

And furthermore let’s be honest. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, truth (spelled with or without a capital “T”) may not actually be as appealing and important—that is, as useful—to us during our journey from the nursery to the grave as the pragmatic benefits and virtues of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

Here then is what this series of posts at SCIENCE DIALOGUES will be about:

  • Millions of years of evolution have done a skillful job of making us clever, inventive, and remarkably successful beings.
  • As history shows us again and again, however, our reliance as a species on the pragmatic (and generally self-serving) strategy of mentally putting things, people, and experiences into separate and seemingly distinct mind boxes—into different categories—often makes it hard for us to notice and pay sufficient attention instead to how things, people, and experiences are almost always linked and interrelated rather than separate and distinct. 
  • In this series, I will be calling the first brain strategy categorical thinking, and the second one relational thinking.
  • My goal in writing these posts will be to survey for you how the second way of thinking about the world and our place in it makes it easier for us to see and understand how widely and often critically things, people, and events impact one another—sometimes in unexpected and even disastrous ways (for example, see: Fig. 5).

Moral of the story so far: while understandable from an evolutionary and psychological point of view, being self-centered creatures is a handicap we humans need ways to confront and overcome.

Dynamic network analysis is one such way. I hope to convince you it is a good one, too.

Figure 5. The beach at Kanapou Bay collects debris from throughout the Pacific Ocean. [https://www.flickr.com/photos/noaaphotolib/19778606375]
This is Part 1 of a continuing series of posts on dynamic network analysis. Next up: 2. Relativity.
© 2018 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.