Protean man and mental bandwidth

Freedom is about having choices.  Despite the political and social obsessions of our times, the great denier of choices is biology.  All things being equal, a sea slug has fewer choices available to it than my clueless dog, and my dog has fewer choices available than I do.  Biology makes dogs freer than sea slugs, and people freer than dogs.

Biology is the enabler to what we are, and the boundary to what we can be.  Don’t expect a revolution by outraged sea slugs trying to improve their condition.  Their condition will prevent it.

Human freedom is a relative thing.  We have more choices than a sea slug, but far less than we would wish for.  We can’t fly or breathe under water, for example.  We can’t detach ourselves from millions of years of evolutionary hard-wiring in the nervous system.  And, while amazingly clever, we are by no means god-like in our ability to absorb information.

As I noted in an earlier post, Tor Norretranders placed the processing speed of the conscious brain at 10-20 bits per second.  A more recent study now estimates the speed at “no faster than 60 bits per second.”  While something of an improvement over Norretranders, it’s a humbling number.

Yet I see no reason to worry.  We got to the moon and the iPhone using our limited bandwidth, so it’s clearly good enough to multiply choices in an effective manner.  But we are limited.  No human being can be anything he wishes.

I say this because, in my youth, it was believed we could be anything we wished – or at least, anything “society” wished.  A rational society, it was thought, could create near-perfect people.  I remember a piece by Ashley Montagu insisting that humanity had no nature, no instincts beyond suckling in earliest infancy.  Lacking biological boundaries, we were each able to become whatever we could conceive.  Freedom was absolute.

This was the cult of Protean man, a powerful faith in mid-twentieth century by no means wholly surrendered by our rationalist elites today.

At its worst, proteanism is a violent, totalitarian impulse, exalting the fantasy life of an individual over the real lives of others.  In the US, fortunately, it tends to be a commercial venture:  if only one pays, one can be thinner-bodied, fatter-lipped, bigger-breasted, happier, friendlier, wealthier, whatever transformation one desires.

When sincere, however, American proteanism is indistinguishable from pomposity.  Recall the citation of Bobby Kennedy’s, often used as an example of the grandeur of his vision:

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

The answer to the question, of course, is in that humbling number of bits per second.


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