Why would Mohamed Atta graciously let a car rental agent know the check oil light was on in the car he returned and then help crash a plane full of people and fuel into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, an act of simple religious hatred?

It's a puzzle of psychology.  The ability to deal kindly with people on an individual level and then demonize them when they are in a group has been a longstanding mystery.   Group behavior, being social, obviously had benefits for early man; trying to live without a group was practically a death sentence even when an 'individual' victory in ways large and small was absolutely necessary for survival.  

Anger and 'the dark side of our emotional inheritance' is a key topic in Ego: The Fall of the Twin Towers and the Rise of an Enlightened Humanity by Peter Baumann and Michael W. Taft, along with our concept of ego and maybe its continued existence.

Evolution is colloquial these days, which makes biologists crazy, but the authors are quite serious in asking if anger is evolving out of mankind and, in that sense, did the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even with its ongoing military response, actually make us nicer people?

A gut response says no, people are still mean, but a few months ago, a psychopathic organic farmer in Norway committed an act of mass murder against completely innocent civilians - in that moment, we were all Norwegians and we felt their pain because you aren't going to meet a nicer group of people in general than Norwegians.   After the events of September 11, 2001, the Germans took to the streets in mourning  of people they had never met.   Yet 1,000 years ago Norwegians were part of a Viking culture who did far worse damage to its enemies than Muslim terrorists did a decade ago, and it has only been a little more half a century since Germans were rationalizing genocide.

In the ramp-up to the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a lot of books and articles will be out there.   The New York Times will be cloying and earnest, just as they were on September 11th a decade ago, running a love ode to a domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground (and friend of President Obama), and giving his memoir free public relations with quotes like "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon".

Little did flacks at the Times know they were going to have a much tougher time giving terrorists a moral relativism out a few short hours after that article went to press.

Some pieces regarding 9/11 will be opportunistic, some will be poignant (or they can just reprint articles like Tom Junod's "The Falling Man") but only one will be a science discourse on how the events of 9/11 may be a sign the world is improving.  It could be argued the events of 9/11/2001 were so profound they are even now causing me to endorse a book on evolutionary psychology.

But why is it profound?  Is it American egocentric-ism?   The damage in New York City was trivial compared to a Carthage or a Dresden or a Hiroshima.   No, I don't think it is egocentric-ism because, generally, Americans ridicule residents of New York City while while residents of NYC generally regard everything beyond the Hudson River as being akin to some post-Apocalyptic wasteland they only experience in a "Fallout"-type video game because traveling to Ohio would be too risky.

It may instead be that the events resonated and continue to do so because it might have marked the beginning of the last act of the last religious war that will ever occur.   The anger part of religious belief, the demonizing of those who are different, may be disappearing.

We know we aren't evolving in the strict biological sense any more - recent studies show human evolution takes a million years - but is all human evolution going to be solely understand as biological?  In 2004, when the French were simultaneously protesting American involvement Iraq while engaging in their own unilateral imperialism in a country that was no threat to anyone outside its own borders (Ivory Coast) talk of French courage came up and I noted there may be something to it; war had devastated two generations of French men in World War I and II so the only young ones left were the infirm or enemy collaborators - modern French were descended from them so their hypocrisy made some sense.  It got a laugh, as it was intended to do, but is there a link between cultural evolution and biology?   What if all the criminals and terrorists die?

In the last 100 years we have achieved more equality than existed in any cultures in history.  Endemic racism and sexism are relics limited to the third world.  We may be moving beyond "I", which is what allows us to demonize others and rationalize it (1).   It may be we are reaching the end of the 'ego', write Peter Baumann and Michael Taft.

Early on, it needs to be noted these are not scientists in the modern sense; that of being degreed and working in academia.  Even here on Science 2.0, which exists to break down old walls and artificial barriers to knowledge and outreach, I found myself wondering why I was reading a book by one of the musicians in "Tangerine Dream" and a fellow whose bio lists him as a 'serious student of evolution' - whatever that means - and a meditation teacher.

If you don't have the patience for long articles on subjects that we will all get plenty of over the next two weeks, I can save you some time; this is a good book, they do a good job.   You should buy it. 

I have often noted that philosophers do a better job of writing about physics than modern physicists do and it may be that people outside biology can see a big picture in evolution differently than biologists.  If so, these guys are a great example.  It kept me reading, even where I didn't agree.

Darwin believed everything was evolution of course, even emotions.   He was, in hindsight, perhaps too deterministic but in The Expression of Emotions In Man and Animals he stated flatly that expressions like anger and disgust were not learned, they were biological.

Yes, he would want to slap evolutionary psychologists today who write stupidity like that liberals have prettier daughters or we evolved to like a certain grill on the front of our cars but he would likely maintain his belief that the framework of emotion was biological, just not deterministic.

In a casual comparison of emotional acceptance in culture from even 150 years ago, we see a number of differences.  It is not acceptable to have a gunfight in the streets, for example, and even 100 years ago a member of a Protestant denomination would not marry even another Protestant much less anyone outside without a lot of drama.  Even 100 years ago there was scientific and cultural acceptance of the idea that some people, even of the same species, were biologically inferior.

But then even by 70 years ago there were obvious changes in that mindset.   After World War II, American became the most benevolent superpower in history, so well known for jacking up enemies and then paying to rebuild them "The Mouse That Roared" became a successful satire and then a movie starring Peter Sellers.(2)  In it, a tiny nation with nothing going for it declares war on the USA just to get the money.

What explains it?  Hedonic adaptation or a mature culture?  The Germans and Norwegians saw plenty of war in their history, maybe they outgrew it.  Or does an emotional regulator switch exist that keeps us from being too high or too low, the kind of thing that would explain why rich people are no happier than peasants in the third world.   Are we on a happiness treadmill that is biologically based and can it affect our culture?

Think about a common topic on this site and among the science community in general - science education; despite American adults being three times as scientifically literate as when I graduated college and females having parity with males in mathematics scores for the first time in world history while test scores for students rise every year, what is the recurring theme we see about science education from some corners? Education stinks and the public is too stupid.

A happiness treadmill that is different for each person but biologically based could be a reason why some people are magnets for racism, sexism or freaks.  They need the struggle, they need to try and fix people who are stupid about science or who continue to smoke, even if their numbers are small.

Yet in all this talk about individuals, we know people work for the common good.   Group affirmation is common because, like I said earlier, it may once have been essential.  Now, given the physical and intellectual 'wealth' we all enjoy the group has changed; we have the energy to refute a local group, which would once have been a death sentence, and be part of a different one, including members from across the world.  It is less easy to demonize distant groups when they are all connected.

If it's true that there is a dark side to our emotional 'inheritance' which once was essential to staying alive, it could still be manipulating us constantly.  But the people who succeed in struggling against it should be more likely to prevent it in future generations, right?

There's obviously a lot more to the book than what I am outlining here; even in the face of cognitive distortion, for example, they make the case that 'ego' may be on the wane and it may be that the evolution involved in that is more epigenetic than what we think of as the slow way.

When a fish becomes aware of its water, a different sort of evolution can occur than the strictly biological kind.


(1) I am not talking about politics, of course.   Constant sniping among the left and right in politics in civilized countries is much different than in countries where the culture war is fought with bullets.

(2) "The Mouse That Roared"