The Face of the Ice

Epistemic status: Casual

And in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.

I am a woman of peaceful Chiffewar, and no experts on the attraction of violence or the nature of war. Someone else will have to think this out. But I really don’t see how anyone could put much stock in victory or glory after he had spent a winter on Winter, and seen the face of the Ice.

–Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

My father was a serious alpinist in his youth, and taught us a few things about mountains when we were kids.  For instance: you always say hello to people you pass on the mountain.

Why? Because the mountain can kill you.  “Hi” means “You are a human like me, and this mountain is our common threat. If you scream for help, I will come for you.”

There’s a certain solidarity between humans that emerges when we’re faced with a potentially hostile natural world.  If we passed on the street, we’d be strangers. There’d be no bond between us.  We might even engage in conflict, under the right circumstances. But on the mountain, all of that falls away.  By default, in the wilderness, a human face is a friendly face, a glad thing to see if you are lost or hurt.

If you are in the desert and you see someone obviously suffering from dehydration, you’ll share your extra water with them. It won’t feel like some kind of altruism or charity, it will feel obvious. It’s instructive, if you’re used to thinking of giving as an unpleasant duty, to experience some situations where it’s natural to be kind.  Kindness becomes practical and natural and obvious when the physical environment is hostile.  Suddenly everything becomes simple: it’s human life against bitter nature, and nothing else matters.  “All men are brothers” becomes a concrete reality.

There’s something clarifying about man vs. nature situations, even at the minimal level you can experience by hiking a technical scramble alone.  I’ve found that a certain alertness kicks in when I have to figure out where to put my hands and feet; I’m scared of falling, I have a heightened awareness of physical/spatial reality, and I don’t care at all about looking foolish or getting dirt on my clothes, because the important thing is to get off the damn mountain without any injuries.  I also am much less lazy; “get to the top” or “get to the bottom” make it feel natural to push a lot harder than “run X miles” or “lift X pounds,” almost as though reaching topographical milestones taps into some primal source of motivation.  Mountains make life more real than it usually is in civilized life.

There’s a traditional overlap between mountain climbing and math; the Russians had their math camps in the Urals for decades. Alan Turing, Sophus Lie, Niels Abel , and many others were avid hikers; a disturbing number of mathematicians have died in hiking accidents.  If I can speculate about the connection, it might have something to do with love of solitude, tolerance for pain and effort, or this heightened-reality effect from spatial problem-solving.  I certainly get a disproportionate number of good ideas while on runs, bike rides, hikes, or long walks alone.

All traits in living things evolved either through natural selection or sexual selection — that is, either they make you less likely to die, or they make you likely to have more children.  (Compare survive-the-winter mode vs. grow-and-reproduce mode.) These are both important to inclusive fitness, but they sometimes work at cross-purposes — for example, sexual ornaments can become so large and unwieldy that they start to impair survival.

You can also map cognitive or behavioral traits to natural-selection vs. sexual-selection. For instance, dominance competitions and play-fighting (like stags butting antlers) are about sexual selection and competing for mates, but survival-related behaviors like escaping predators or figuring out how to survive natural hazards are about natural selection. We probably got much of our sensory processing and spatial awareness through natural selection, but social awareness is at least partially sexually selected.

Some behaviors are ambiguous. Was the evolution of hunting among humans due to the extra calories from meat (a natural-selection explanation) — or as a way of demonstrating fitness to mates (a sexual-selection explanation)?  Hunter-gatherers generally rely more on plant foods than animals, so maybe hunting large animals was more of an elaborate show of strength and bravery than a survival necessity; on the other hand, meat really is nutritious.  By analogy, I think it’s likely that human intelligence is part survival necessity, part ornament.

My intuition is that mountain-climbing and, generally, coping with wilderness, cultivates the parts of cognition that are about survival and natural selection, as opposed to competition and sexual selection.

There’s a kind of sexual-selection-related aggression in which fighting is fun.  You’re a red-blooded, well-fed, fit person with lots of energy to burn and plenty of ego; you want to compete, and maybe to pick a fight.  You’re full of rajas.  Maybe you’re a little bit of a Cavalier.  The highest expression of this mindset I’ve seen so far is the Iliad (modern translation by Ian Johnston here).

That is not the mindset that the wilderness cultivates. Survival-cognition is clear and practical and understated and a little cold. One of my coworkers has joked about the “Utah phenotype” of the kind of people who move to Utah for the outdoor endurance sports — small, unassuming-looking men, whom you wouldn’t guess as great athletes to look at, but who will keep up an absolutely crushing pace once you get them on a mountain.

War, contra Le Guin, is probably a blend of aggression and survival. There are several generations of men in my family who have been in the military, and they were small, serious, practical, extremely tough people; more survival-oriented than aggression-oriented (though of course survival sometimes means killing your enemies.) I suspect Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, of being this sort of fighter.  Pure aggression without survival is play-fighting, and modern warfare is definitely not that.

Technical skill is usually very survival-oriented, which I think is a big part of why the math/mountains connection is so strong.  The stories I’ve been told about what it’s like to be a sysadmin or ICU nurse suggest that this clarifying, no-bullshit, get-it-done attitude comes alive in their sort of man-vs-nature situations (well, man-vs-disease or man-vs-bug).  Status and competition and ego and sex simply don’t matter when you’re trying to keep people alive and their machines working.  You can’t lie to Reality or sweet-talk it or intimidate it, you have to figure out how it works.

Jeffrey Tucker has a nice essay  contrasting the (rather reactionary) view that fighting gives drama and purpose to life (the sexual-selection mindset) with the struggle to accomplish productive goals and build a free advanced civilization, a “fight” that isn’t about fighting.  The latter can be painted in a dramatic and glorious light too, despite being a fundamentally different thing.

For serious survival goals — things like overcoming disease, poverty, and violence — you really need survival-mindset. I suspect that sexual-selection-mindset is healthy and natural and joyful and many people will have fuller lives if they cultivate it to some extent. But humanity-wide goals are pretty much entirely about the survival-related stuff. Meredith Patterson has some thoughts about her shift towards survival-mentality that I pretty much agree with; when your enemy is something like “poverty”, you have to avoid the attractive nuisances of interpersonal conflict.  Serious goals require seriousness — not like “never laughing or taking a break”, but staying realistic and not getting caught up in drama.



9 thoughts on “The Face of the Ice

  1. Seems like a nitpick, I know, but: I hate the contrast between “natural” and “sexual” selection, as if the latter were not encompassed within the former. If we are going to use words that way, then we should stop saying that Darwin came up with the “theory of evolution by natural selection”, and instead say that he came up with the “theory of evolution by selection”. Venn diagrams should not have holes.

    More substantively, I feel sort of uncomfortable with the direction I sense you going in in this and some other recent posts. On one level, of course, this post can be seen as being about the distinction between physical and social cognition (as articulated notably in Michael Vassar’s 2013(?) Edge essay) — which is great; I regard this a fundamentally important model. But — speaking in terms of this very model — there’s a widespread misunderstanding to the effect that the “finer things in life” (art etc., particularly as contrasted with STEM) fall exclusively into the realm of social cognition; and this is just so, so, so, false. I feel like a whole array of cultural pathologies can be traced to this misunderstanding; and it looks like it might be solidifying in your mind, and I worry that maybe I missed a crucial “window” in which to try to correct it.

    This could even have existential implications of a sort, in the following way (which also illustrates some other possible differences I have in my model wrt yours): notwithstanding the fact that Important Tasks require a “survival” mindset in some sense (basically physical cognition), I don’t actually believe they usually can be effectively done by people who are in the middle of actually fighting for their own personal survival: being chased by a lion, trying to find food and shelter, or modern first-world counterparts like not having a stable job, etc. In other words, I basically believe that *something like* the Maslow hierarchy applies here (notwithstanding your other post). The problem is — and this is what Michael was talking about in his essay — that society doesn’t reward physical cognition with Maslow-advancement. As a result, by the time people get up to Level 5, their focus has basically shifted to social cognition, and they “enjoy the finer things in life” in predominantly if not exclusively that way. As a result, they are cognitively unequipped to do the very things that people on Level 5 are supposed to be doing (“figuring out where the monkey tribe should go next”, i.e. solving x-risk etc.), or at least unpracticed. (I think the well-known pathology of “serving on prestigious committees”, etc is an example of this, and I fear we’re already starting to see this with some of the leaders of the x-risk movement.)

    I basically feel that if we, as a society, understood better that art (at least certain forms, most notably music) was just as much about physical cognition as social (and basically as much about physical as STEM is), that would at least reflect (and could even cause) a stronger presence of physical cognition along the gradient of social advancement.

    • I’m interested in this model. I definitely wasn’t trying to contrast art and science in this post. I can see how music could be understood in a very structural, physical way. Painting and sculpture are clearly about making physical objects, and thus are “survival” cognition as well.

      I suppose I could imagine a society where physical cognition was socially rewarded? Like, separating the cultural level (what a particular society rewards) from the psychological level (what cognitive habits we evolved to Do Social with)?

      I’m mostly processing Michael’s stuff from the perspective of somebody who’d rather just gossip and play forever than do any actual work, and trying to come up with reasons why doing any actual work is worthwhile. Maybe you’re reading more into it than is there?

      • The best example I know of a society that seems to have linked social advancement to physical cognition is pre-WWI Germany (the “Second Reich”), and its surrounding cultural realm. Note the tremendous levels of prestige attached simultaneously in this society to STEM and music (as well as “intellection” generally). This phenomenon continued but became confined to subcultures during the Weimar period, before being essentially obliterated entirely by Hitler (cf. another post of yours). My impression is that there are vestiges of it in contemporary German society that function in the role of nostalgia for the past, rather than “authentic” cultural expression.

        The correct dichotomy, it seems to me, is not “work” vs. “play/gossip”, but rather “work/play” vs. “gossip”. (Not, by the way, that gossip is inherently bad; the problem is when there’s too much of a positive correlation between status and time/effort/identity spent on gossip, as opposed to work or play.) The right “work” to be doing should feel like “play” (but not “gossip”).

        I’m definitely reading more than the literal text of this post, reacting to undercurrents I perceive.

        Here’s an anecdote, incidentally, that really sticks in my mind as illustrating “the problem”. I attended two colloquium talks back-to-back in the music department of a university that will remain nameless. It was like night and day. The first was in the composition sub-area. Sociologically, it was the STEM ghetto of American society: almost all male, with all the same awkward mannerisms, speech patterns, and smattering of foreign accents you would find at a math talk. The second was in musicology, or “music studies”. The room was bright, colorful, gender-balanced. It was every stereotype of humanities academia you could imagine, exemplified with utter shamelessness: verbally fluent people spouting rapid fusillades of mythological references, overt political rants against you-can-guess-whom, weaving together modernist, postmodernist, and pre-modernist narratives, text, subtext, intertext, complete with cute profanity-laced “hashtags”, all at a rate of about five zillion per minute. You almost even got a sense of which grad students were illicitly sleeping with which professors.

        Now, there are three really striking things about this: (1) Despite the overwhelming environmental contrast, the ostensible subject matter of the two sessions was, in theory, highly overlapping: in particular, some of the same “big names” figured prominently in both. (2) Not only was the second room populated by an anthropologically much healthier community (the gender ratio alone being a tell-tale sign), not only was it a more stimulating place to be on a purely verbal and sub-verbal level, but the actual intellectual content of the talk was more engaging and in some sense “relevant”; whereas the first room was intellectually dead, giving rise only to the vacuities of various kinds of lip-service. *And yet*: (3) Particularly when context and subtext are taken into account — exactly the kind of thing these people would endorse, right? — what the intellectual content of the second talk actually consisted of, in the end, was an elaborate display of contempt for actually trying to understand or view music in any kind of detailed, “technical”, “theoretical” , or generally non-social or -societal or -sociological way. (A contempt, by the way, borne of a kind of fundamental insecurity or fear, in my opinion.)

        This “tale of two talks” is basically the whole problem of our time and place in microcosm.

      • Thanks for explaining. I think this makes sense.

        I kind of regret having written a post that has implied value judgments. Normally I don’t like those at all. Maybe I should quit writing that way.

      • To whatever extent I’m noticing an actual mistake you ‘re making, I’m not at all sure that “avoid value judgements” is the right heuristic for avoiding it. That might even point in the wrong direction, on an orthogonal axis.

        On the other hand, I’m also not sure what the right heuristic *is*, other than “have communicated with me more and sooner, especially about music”. (Incidentally, I have started blogging actively again, but so far mostly on a “scratchpad” Tumblr blog at, the idea being that the better essays would eventually be polished and transferred to my “real” blog, which is associated with this WordPress account and thus linked at my username. I doubt reading my writings would cause anything to snap into place immediately, but maybe over time?)

        I have to make an important clarification to my anecdote above, which may affect its force. In the sentence

        “(1) Despite the overwhelming environmental contrast, the ostensible subject matter of the two sessions was, in theory, highly overlapping: in particular, some of the same “big names” figured prominently in both.”

        the “big names” referred to people being *mentioned* in the talks, not people present! I think I may have been literally the only person in both rooms. Which is, obviously, part of the problem I was talking about!

  2. To me, this exchange seems like a perfect example of discourse done right!. It would be a shame to change it in any way. All value judgments were honest and open, not subtextual, and all presentations of challenge and qualification well received, so the effect is to contribute to interEstand to speed a
    ANd fidelity of communication, Not to intimidate, Silence or judge. A conversation was initiated, and could easily be continued and lead to a more formal treatment of the subject in a different from blog form if it later seemed useful.

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