Evolution of the smile and the inherent ambiguity of signs

Michael Graziano proposes a interesting, and quite convincing, hypothesis on the evolution of a good many human signals, including smiling, crying, laughing, and subtle versions of these.

His essay can be found here: The First Smile. I highly recommend it.

Evolutionary psychology is without question a real field capable of explaining a great deal about human beings. At the same time, it is often very difficult to separate what actually happened during thousands of years of evolution from what we think happened.

Graziano proposes that the human signals of smiling, crying, and laughing all evolved from a single more basic cringe reaction employed as defense against an object or person striking us or otherwise threatening us.

The evolutionary transformation from primitive reactions to subtle social cues is fascinating to contemplate. I am particularly struck by how ambiguous our present-day understanding of these social cues can be. As Graziano, the evolutionist, says, “So long as both sides of the exchange keep deriving benefits, the behaviour floats free of its violent origins.”

The violent origins of smiling and acting nice only sometimes play a direct role in why people do these behaviors today. Added to them is a plethora of cultural and idiosyncratic interpretations. And so, Graziano the social scientist also says, “We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.”

I would contend that this aspect of human emotional life is maddening, that it is literally driving people crazy. Because how can you really tell if an expression, a statement, a gesture is authentic or fake? And how can you be sure you know how to interpret it?

In most cases, you can’t be sure. Yes, we can make vows, proclaim fealty or allegiance, swear till death do us part, or repeat familiar, comforting routines for years, but none of these methods is certain either. Indeed, our need for them only shows what thin ice we are on. All of them can be faked and all of them often are.

I do believe that many, if not most, of us do not want to be either fakers or the one faked to. Yet we seem all but trapped “between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.” Don’t we?

This is why we all need FIML practice or something very much like it.With FIML, much greater communicative detail can be made available to both partners. Rather than wonder what words, smiles, tears, or a tone of voice means, FIML partners have the means to find out.

Evolutionarily, you might say that FIML allows the human neocortex to understand and control the human limbic system. FIML allows higher thought, reason, and reflection to control base reactions and base signs that inevitably cause serious misunderstandings even between people who are very well-disposed toward each other and who share a strong desire to interact honestly.

Humans are characterized by a delicate and intricate web of thought, language, and culture that has been grafted onto a base of animal behavior. I do not see how it is even remotely possible to fully realize the potential of that delicate and intricate web of thought, language, and culture without frequently analyzing how animal signs and signals interfere with it during even the most ordinary of interactions.

Graziano mentions the Duchenne smile, a supposedly authentic smile that includes the muscles around the eyes. But Duchenne smiles can easily be faked. They are a required social expression in most of East Asia and can be seen faked by actors on American TV all the time.

The distinction between a Duchenne smile and a super-fake one is valid and valuable to a point. But it is also a woefully simple distinction. We cannot as thinking beings expect to find satisfaction in noticing minor, and easily faked, distinctions like that. The same thing goes for tones of voice, gestures, word choices, behaviors, and everything else we use to communicate.

In public, in the world at large, we have to use best guesses about what is going on, but in private guessing about what your partner really means is a recipe for mutual disaster, if not complete destruction.

Alpha male falsehoods

I have a sort of close friend/relative who deeply believes in the alpha male thing. He believes it so much he frequently behaves horribly, and probably due to his alpha beliefs, at least in part, has become an alcoholic. He suffers from wild delusions of grandeur coupled with abject self-abasement and shame, a not uncommon formula. He is also as abusive to others as he is to himself.

So I have a personal stake in this issue. And also the alpha male thing is very good example of how far cultural beliefs can stray from reality and thus cause great harm to society as well as individuals caught up in falsehoods of that sort.

Alpha status, even based as it is on bad science, became a semiotic—something that can be communicated with signs to other humans—and in that capacity became a fetishized semiotic that took on a life of its own.

Anyone who has given thought to culture must surely be aware that all of the world’s cultures are filled with mistaken semiotics like the alpha male thing. In US culture, pretty much anything that become “a thing” is a fetishized semiotic, or a fetishized semiotic bundle.

If our entire culture can see through the alpha male thing, and by extension, the alpha female thing, we will save a great deal of time and avoid a great deal of suffering. In Buddhist terms, “empty” semiotics are impermanent things (dharmas) that have no “own being,” no “inherent nature.” They are reified concepts that become part of a transitory culture and are doomed to oblivion, especially if they are demonstrably false like the alpha male thing.

As individuals, I don’t think we can do all that much about which way our culture flows, but we can do a great deal about how our own minds flow. FIML practice would help my friend, but he is too drunk to do it and too lost in his delusions to even glimpse an exit from them. He is a sad example of someone trapped in a prison of his “own device.”

The alpha thing came from narrow wolf studies extended to dog training and then to human males, then females. It began in the 1940s and has held sway over parts of US culture to this day.

Here is a quick refutation:

The debate has its roots in 1940s studies of captive wolves gathered from various places that, when forced to live together, naturally competed for status. Acclaimed animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel dubbed the male and female who won out the alpha pair. As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring’s status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack’s hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents’ lead.(Dog Training and the Myth of Alpha-Male Dominance)

As for my friend, I hate the sin but not the sinner. I know he doesn’t read this site (doesn’t know about it), but maybe by getting these ideas out there they will by “a commodius vicus of recirculation” “bring him back” if not to Howth Castle or Adam and Eve’s place, at least to a better place.


Edit 8/20/04: Here is a counter-argument on dog obedience versus wolf cooperation:Wolves cooperate but dogs submit, study suggests.

A lesson in semiotic manipulation

A secret report on “how to influence the media and public opinion in America and Europe” is allegedly guiding Israeli spokespeople’s words and emotions when they describe the Gaza conflict on the news or in public.

Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked “not for distribution or publication” and it is easy to see why. The Luntz report, officially entitled “The Israel project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was leaked almost immediately to Newsweek Online, but its true importance has seldom been appreciated. It should be required reading for everybody, especially journalists, interested in any aspect of Israeli policy because of its “dos and don’ts” for Israeli spokesmen.

These are highly illuminating about the gap between what Israeli officials and politicians really believe, and what they say, the latter shaped in minute detail by polling to determine what Americans want to hear. (The secret report that helps Israel hide facts)

Readers of this site should be well-aware of the importance of semiotics and of how they are used to construct and conceal “reality.” Humans are primitive semiotic animals who fight with words and ideas as much or more than with physical weapons.

Public statements on the conflict in Gaza amply reveal this, while the report linked above shows us some of the ways the deception works.

Of course, all public figures do stuff like this. Indeed, all individuals do it sometimes, if not all the time. Call it “framing,” “massaging the message,” “getting your point across,” “dissembling,” “explaining yourself,” “giving your side of the story,” or just “lying through your teeth,” it is something we are exposed to in public and private every day.

I don’t know how to stop this in the public sphere, but individuals can put an end to this sort of biased and harmful “messaging” by practicing FIML. FIML practice shows partners how societal and idiosyncratic semiotics affect both their listening and speaking, and, by extension, how they fundamentally make up what we normally call our “selves” or “psychologies.”

Remove as much bullshit as you can from your mind with the help of your FIML partner, and you will discover that your “self” is a very different entity than you had thought. It is much more dynamic, rational, and adaptive than the stolid bozo now trapped inside your head by a network of poorly learned semiotics.


An article this morning describes an increase in mob killings of sorcerers in Cambodia.

The article is interesting, and grisly, because it provides some insights into this behavior as well as insights into Cambodian society.

One explanation for the murders:

“I think these killings have more to do with Cambodians’ perceived lack of agency in their own lives than with increased sentiment against people who claim supernatural abilities. And mob-think can be very powerful, especially in a country with so little effective governance.” (Cambodians are increasingly being executed for sorcery)

Reading that made me wonder if we Americans are all that much different when it comes to “terrorists” or our perceived “enemies,” in Ukraine or anywhere else in the world.

Most Americans oppose most wars unless there is a trumped-up threat accompanied by the “sorcery” of important people lying about that threat (run-up to Iraq war, Vietnam, etc.). At such times, and especially as the economy worsens, our “perceived lack of agency in our own lives” leads us into “mob-think.”

“Governance” in our country is very “effective” at inciting “mob-think” against terrorists and enemies, though it is, similar to Cambodia, generally highly ineffective at governing according to sound ethical principles or social ones that benefit the public.

The Vietnam War is an example of how we used sorcery at home to kill millions of innocent “enemies” in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Our government’s support for the bombing in Gaza today is another example,

It’s a small stretch to see our large public space as a macrocosm of village life in Cambodia where sorcerers are singled out for blame and murder. The semiotics are remarkably similar, though our death tolls are massively higher.

Truth versus getting something done

Truth is the first casualty of war. It is also very commonly the pre-casualty of getting something done.

Feel bad? Throw a tantrum. Makes no difference if your reasons are right. Just go nuts and often you will get something done and may even feel better for it.

Confident assertion carries the day, especially among those who have power or are wannabe power types.

You can see this principle at work in politics, war, business, interpersonal relations, schools, science, religion—pretty much anywhere you look.

Truth, when out, is strong, but in most situations it is weak and quickly trampled by those who are getting something done or who promise to.

Communists in Russia and China said some true things before they got power. Once they got power, they still paid lip-service to truth, but became preoccupied with getting something done, especially getting more power.

Truth in Russia went from a semi-reasonable (semi-reasonable if you ignore the principle being described here) to unbelievable, wanton, astonishing violence and mass murder on a scale not seen in Europe since the Mongolian invasion of the 13th century.

Somewhat similar events unfolded in China a few decades later. Some partial truths were trampled by violent fanatics who killed scores of millions. Then Mao got Alzheimer’s and the country was ruled from behind his doddering throne by the Gang of Four, one of whom was his wife. After they were deposed, the country slowly opened up. Today it is ruled by a small oligarchy made up of the children and grandchildren of the original Chinese communists who brought about the revolution, which had been based on partial truths and a massive ability to get something done.

I am half-way through The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam by Douglas Valentine. So far, the book shows that the same sort of thing happened there. A misconceived program got started and kept going because untruthful reports looked good to LBJ who wanted to get something done. He used people who also wanted to get something done. So something became anything became terror, blowing up villages, while using American “advisers” who had next to no knowledge of Vietnam.

I doubt it was much different in Iraq. Untruthful “intelligence” was sold as truth and mayhem got done. That there probably were more sinister goals than “birthing democracy” is a sort of refutation of my point that proves the point. The people that claimed to want to get something done were the ones who carried the day.

When we emphasize truth over getting something done, many things change. In interpersonal relations, we will find that something like FIML practice is essential for without it we will tend, at least sometimes, to ignore the small voice of truth as we rush forward to get something done.

From what I have read, CEOs do not deserve their rock star reputations anymore than hedge fund people do. They get high pay and respect based on statistical fluctuations. In any year, there will be a number of CEOs or hedge funds that have outperformed the average. Given more years, there will be regression to the mean and their track records will look no better than chance.

Our next presidential candidate will fill the media with small truths and many lies while ardently promising to get something done. It won’t happen. It never does. They fool us because it feels good to listen to someone promising to get something done, even if we know it’s not true.

Speech pathology

An insidious and common kind of speech pathology is having more in your imagination than you are allowed to say.

What prevents you from speaking may be cultural. Or it may be a lack of skill, which in this case is almost certainly due to being in a culture that does not train its members to do this.

I would hypothesize that a person’s degree of emotional/psychological suffering scales very closely to the degree that they are not able to speak about what is in their imagination.

Some people kill their imaginations to save themselves the trouble of feeling bad. This is what alcohol addiction, and some other drugs, can accomplish. This is also what is accomplished by becoming subservient to the conventions of a culture that proscribes or inhibits speech that might free its members from the suffering described above.

As far as I can tell, there is no large or major culture anywhere in the world that allows its members speech to match their imaginations.

Imaginative speech in art is mostly OK in most cultures. But interpersonal imaginings are not.

If you imagine anyone in any way, especially in a way that is painful to you, but you cannot speak about it to them, you have this speech pathology, or your culture does. If the person you are imagining is just an acquaintance or conventional friend, this does not matter too much, though it is not an ideal situation.

If the person you are imagining is your primary interlocutor, you have a serious speech pathology.

Kevin MacDonald

I am a huge supporter of free speech, both in public and in private. I mention this because I am dismayed at how little can be said in private even among close friends, while even less can be said in public.

I am also terrified at the idea that the USA may eventually enact hate speech laws. As a linguist, I know from study and practice that limiting speech to pre-approved topics and emotions is the bane of social and intellectual progress.

As a Buddhist, my main complaint against the Dharma as we have received it is its emphasis on “right speech” with no mention of right listening. Over-emphasizing speech while ignoring the importance of good listening gives all power to the listener to interpret what they hear without analyzing it.

Having grown up in a community that was about 40% Jewish and having spent many years in China and East Asia, I am very used to how these groups speak about themselves and others. Editorials that would be deemed “racist” in the USA or Europe are common in East Asia where discussions of race and racial/ethnic interests are normal.

Kevin MacDonald is a scholar of Jewish history and Jewish “group strategies” as interpreted from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. It is refreshing to read MacDonald’s work because it is clearly referenced and argued and because he is not Jewish.

Not being Jewish gives him an objective point of view that frees him from some bias. One bias that affects the way many Americans perceive Jews today is the great prominence of the Holocaust in our understanding of Jewish history coupled with almost complete ignorance of the prominent role played by Jews in the Great Famine (Holodomor 1932-33) in Ukraine. Here is a piece by MacDonald on that subject: Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews a a hostile elite in the USSR.

Here is an essay posted by MacDonald just today: Žižek, Group Selection, and the Western Culture of Guilt. In this piece, he defends and explains himself better that I can. I highly recommend both of his linked essays.

When he is not being completely ignored, MacDonald is often called a racist or even a neo-Nazi, words strong enough to scare most listeners away. What is conspicuously absent is reasoned refutation of his well-argued ideas. Either he is right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. But no one who has read his Culture of Critique could in good conscience dismiss it out of hand or conclude that MacDonald is racist or anti-Semitic.

I admire MacDonald for his scholarship, much of which I accept as adding to our understanding of the past and present. And I also admire him for his courage to speak publicly and to make his views known to a wider audience through The Occidental Observer, which promotes “white identity, interests, and culture.”

If those last few words make you shiver, go live in China where the promotion of Chinese identity, interests, and culture is the rule, not the exception. Or read any of scores of Jewish publications that do the same. Or Japanese, or Korean, or Mongolian, or pretty much anywhere in the world.

But white. Why white? Why not Irish, or French, or Polish, or Italian? Why white? The reason is the genes and culture(s) of European-derived peoples are mixed together. So if you want to preserve or promote the interests or culture(s) of those people you probably should use a simple word like white.

I have spent much of my life supporting civil rights, first for blacks, then for women, then for everyone. Then I became involved in promoting the interests of Chinese immigrants, followed by the interests of Tibetans in Tibet (now a largely lost cause, I fear). But only recently did it ever even occur to me to support the interests of white culture.

I got this way due to time and growth but also due to my painfully slow realization that the non-white groups I was supporting virtually never supported my group, the white people group. Yes, they sometimes supported me, but only if I were supporting them, often against real or imagined white oppression.

I don’t for a second deny that white people have done horrible things, but so have all the other groups, including Jews. When we don’t have free speech and we allow the listener to decide what can be said or not, we tend always to emphasize one side of things while leaving out other facts and interpretations.

Speech is always suppressed by those with the power to do it. There is much truth in the saying that you can tell who rules over you by what you are not allowed to say. This is as true in a Chinese Buddhist monastery, as it is in a Japanese classroom, as it is in American media.

I do not believe this is good for anyone. We should be open and free in what we say, how we reason, and how we think. Open discussion promotes a safer and better world for everyone. Kevin MacDonald is either right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. He should be read and discussed widely and not simply ignored or dismissed with ad hominem attacks.

Alison Weir



This talk was given on March 7, 2014 and applies to events today in Gaza as if she were foretelling them.

I am putting the video up for that reason and also because something she said grabbed my attention. Her claim begins around 1:22. She says, in part, of the Israeli strategy that it is designed “…to keep deaths below the level that would trigger world outrage, while maiming as many as possible.”

I hope she is wrong, though I doubt it. A strategy of this sort is particularly gruesome as maimed individuals can cause more problems than dead ones. If there are many of them, they can hobble an entire society. A maimed individual still has a place in society. If they were leaders, no matter how small, those who looked to them for direction will still look to them though now they will learn a lesson of despair.

Having been deliberately maimed myself (in the USA), I am acutely aware of how effective this strategy can be. Social bonds can be weak and even deep interpersonal bonds can be degraded overnight when one party is maimed, especially if others don’t know what has happened. Maiming can take many forms, including war wounds, poisoning, psycho-surgery, beatings, infection, deliberate medical malpractice, false arrest, and so on.

I hope Weir is wrong about Israeli strategy, but I am certain that strategies of that type have been and are used in many parts of the world, including the USA. If the level of maiming within any particular society is kept largely secret—“below the level that would trigger [societal] outrage”—narrow, partisan aims can be ruthlessly pursued without fear of ever meeting significant opposition.

Ambiguity in interpersonal communication – the “ambiguous commons”

Virtually all interpersonal communication contains ambiguity, much of it very serious.

Basic FIML practice is designed to deal with ambiguity between participating partners. For the most part FIML deals with ambiguity the moment it arises.

Basic FIML works with very small units of communication and for that reason is able to completely clear up serious ambiguities if they are caught soon enough.

An advantage of FIML practice is through its use of small units, it is able to achieve almost perfect clarification of those units. Try it. Just  few successful FIML interventions will change your life.

In light of the above, an obvious disadvantage of basic FIML practice is it is not well-designed to deal with larger ambiguities. A larger ambiguity would be one that arises or perdures under circumstances that cannot be subjected to an immediate FIML query.

Situations like this will occur when FIML partners interact with other people. During time spent with others, it is generally not possible to do a FIML query. Matters worth inquiring about can be brought up later, when partners are alone, but it is usually more difficult to resolve them that long after the fact.

I think it is fair to say that virtually all human communication takes place in and around an “ambiguous commons,” a common area of meaning that can be variously interpreted and is liable to always be ambiguous.

“Did I sound dumb when I said that?” you might ask your partner some hours after spending time with friends. No matter how they answer, it is hard to know if they saw or heard the same thing or if either of you are remembering the scene correctly. And even if you can get decent satisfaction with those questions, what about the other people who were there? Have they concluded you are a doof or do they like you better for what you said or did anyone even notice or do they remember or care?

You can sort of fix things up with a phone call and an open-ended apology, but what you are really doing there is just massaging the ambiguous commons, working it your way or toward common ground. You are not really going to remove the ambiguity and/or you are going to create more, because your call might confirm the gaffe in the other person’s mind, or it might remind them of what they had forgotten, or it might seem paranoid of you or considerate, et cetera ad infinitum.

That is the nature of the ambiguous commons and if you look for it you will see it everywhere. If we enter the “ambiguous commons” from one side, our behavior will look different than if we enter from another side, and it has many sides.

You can see it in public life, too. Pretty much any issue of public interest will be worked in and around the ambiguous commons by those who speak on it publicly. Gun-control statistics and emotions can be and are worked from many angles. The winners of the debate will be those who convince the most people based on how they massage the facts, how they get their message out, how much money supports their massaged positioned.

Wars are started by massaging the commons as well. We can see the power of public views of the commons by how explosive public issues can be in a private setting. Bring up gun-control today at the dinner table and compare the reactions to subjects that are becoming more settled like gay marriage or legal pot.

Basic FIML practice is not designed to deal with a large ambiguous commons, but FIML partners through their practice of basic FIML should find that they have greatly increased sensitivity to the importance of noticing the ambiguous commons and treating it honestly whenever it arises.

Measuring pleasure, pain, bias, and acculturation

It’s a given that our senses of complex pleasure and pain are socially mediated and/or constructed.

Even simple pleasures and pains can feel different in different cultures and contexts.

Complex pleasures, pains, values, biases, and social norms are learned and maintained by social interaction. Just as most children naturally like sweets, most adults naturally cleave to cultural norms.

It is relatively painless for most to hold conventional beliefs and painful to go against them. This is why cultures seems so groundless—even ridiculous—when viewed from a temporal or cultural distance.

An interesting study from Cornell University claims that “…the subjective quality of affect can be objectively quantified across stimuli, modalities and people.” (Source: Population coding of affect across stimuli, modalities and individuals)

An article on the study, which is behind a pay wall, says of it that brain “activity patterns of positive and negative experiences were partly shared across people.” (Source: Study cracks how the brain processes emotions)

That is, different people’s brains appear to show similar activity under fMRI imaging when responding to similar pleasures or pains.

The pleasures and pains charted in the experiment were simple, but I believe it is reasonable to extrapolate from them to general statements about how humans perceive and respond to cultural norms, values, beliefs, and semiotics.

The biases of my culture feel pleasant to me and remain maddeningly simple-minded because I process them in much the same way I process the taste of ice cream or the feeling of a familiar and comfortable chair.

The biases of your culture feel painful to me and remain maddeningly simple-minded because I process them in much the same way I process a fly on my nose.

Virtually all people are trapped in very slow-moving agglomerations of signs and symbols (culture) that determine how they experience pleasure and pain (biases and more).

I think the Cornell experiment, though it does not make such strong claims, is showing basically that.

Empathy’s evil twin and our need to understand it

Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.

It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?

William Blake wrote the wonderful book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When I first read Blake in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.

Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.

If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.

Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?

I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.

This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.

The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.