Monthly Archives: June 2013

Blip! Intelligent Design Is Done Before It Gets Going…

I’m republishing this because I think it bears repeating in light of the ongoing activities of intelligent design advocates, and because I realized that I was wrong about something right at the beginning. The core errors in ID do power the evolution-bashing arm of creationism. I’ve noticed that the error of de-contextualization which characterizes the positive argument for ID forms the core of many people’s arguments against evolution. Obviously, I think that this is no accident. To many creationists, evolution is one rationalizing story among many. This would be true, provided one considered the theory of evolution out of historical context. But remember, the hypothesis was derived from observations of biological variation across environments. Then came the archeological evidence predicted, and later the genetic evidence predicted. That historical evolution is the difference between all proper scientific theories and mere rationalizing stories. So, one more time – I swore I wouldn’t get into this anymore. The intelligent design crowd keeps pushing this crap, though, and I have kids who are at risk. Beyond that, I suppose intelligent design’s sort of dishonesty just galls me. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I am about to give an argument by analogy. I do so with trepidation, because analogies are always in danger of going off in the wrong direction and have no deductive validity in the first place. However, I think this form is the only fair tool for the subject since I’m going to use this argument by analogy to critique another argument by analogy: intelligent design (ID). Rather, I’m going to critique the positive arm of the intelligent design argument. This is the withered limb compared to the evolution-bashing arm, but it is necessary to the whole and the negative argument is a morass. Since scientific knowledge is never complete, critics have available to them an endless list of objections. The positive side of the ID case is more a philosophical than a scientific argument, so it can be settled on that level.

The positive ID argument is as follows: when humans start with a purpose (a problem to solve) and devise a tool to serve that purpose, the end product looks a certain way. Biological structures have a similar appearance, so biological systems must result from the same sort of process. An immediate problem arises at this point. Since proponents wish the analogy between man-made objects and biological structures to be precise the argument commits the fallacy of the undistributed middle (Designed structures look like X, Biological structures look like X, therefore Biological structures are Designed structures).

The proponents of ID subsequently introduce a number of modifiers to try to alleviate this situation. Complex specified information is not only used to portray designed and biological structures as essentially similar, it is also used to try to pare down the middle by saying it is statistically negligible. Appeals to abductive reasoning serve the same purpose, suggesting that design is so far and away the “best guess” that there’s no need to worry about the logic. There are deeper problems than the modifiers and the middle but those are the simplest things to consider, so let’s go there first. Let me tell you how I built my son a mountain bike.

The bike came in a big box in a bunch of pieces with a couple dozen pages of instructions. The instructions were complex and very specific. In fact, if you read the instructions through, you would know that a mountain bike and nothing but a mountain bike would result from following those instructions, even without actually building a bike to find out. But, I didn’t read the instructions. I know how bike parts work, so I just eyeballed the problem and figured it out. So, even though the Complex Specified Information (CSI) in the instructions has all the qualities that the advocates of biological CSI wish it to have, it doesn’t have the necessary relationship to the endpoint that those advocates want from it. There are multiple paths through the middle to the mountain bike. There is still a way out for ID, though. I must have picked up on the CSI contained in the parts themselves. It’s true. When I looked at the parts, they fit together in certain configurations and orders of assembly best, as I expected. My expectations were key, too. Over the years, bike designers had shaped those expectations, in effect teaching me to read the information they put in the parts so I could use my abductive reasoning to make a really good guess about how the parts should go together.

I use this “best guess” faculty all the time, because it is a great shortcut and pretty reliable in familiar circumstance. Notice I said ‘pretty reliable’. Also note that I said I didn’t use the instructions, but I didn’t say I threw them away. Sometimes the bike makers come up with an innovation and then my abductive reasoning is worthless and I have to rely on the instructions again to tell me what to do about the new part. I get in trouble if I try to rely on that ‘best guess’ shortcut in clinical medicine, too. The causal history of a manufactured bike is well-defined because people decided to make it that way. If the causal history of a patient’s symptoms is well-defined for me, it’s because I have decided so. Used outside of a situation with known prior constraints on the variables, the ‘good guess’ becomes confirmation bias. So, the problem is with the complex specified information. In biological structures, to achieve ‘specification’ and thus make the ‘best guess’ inference to design, the causal history has to be constrained after the fact. Anything less leaves open those pesky intermediate paths through the middle. ID imposes that constraint by assigning purpose to all biological structures it considers. Assigning purpose is easy for us humans and we like to do it because it lets us use shortcuts like guessing. Attributions of purpose (intent) are so appealing that we have trouble keeping them in the realm of human behavior where they belong (and not even there without some confirmatory process to check the attributions). Who hasn’t said their car “worked hard” to get up a steep hill? It’s just as easy to say that E. coli intends to swim to new food sources with its flagellum. In fact, it takes just that sort of presumption of intent to wrangle an object’s causal history into CSI, resulting in a bit of a Cartesian circle (if the flagellum is made for swimming, then it has a complex history treading a narrow path to that endpoint, which shows that the flagellum was made for swimming). Still, we should be able to safely use this attribution of intent after the fact in limited circumstances, as long as we’re careful, right? For instance, it is surely accurate to say that the guys who designed my son’s bike did so from an original purpose. However, even that presumption of intent from the endpoint is not accurate, and the problem with the retrospective attribution of purpose/intent in such a case leads us back to the problem with intelligent design that predates any attempt to distribute or minimize the middle.

What do we know about design? We really just know what we do and what we do requires an agent (us), a purpose, and means. The problem is that the relationship between those three factors is not linear, nor is it even hierarchical. When considering bike design, for instance, we could go back to the origin of the means via the agent and examine the influence the means then had on the agent’s intent and subsequent development of further means. We could track back to the origin of the wheel in geometry, which is in turn based on observed properties of materials, which are in turn based on some basic laws of physics, all of which humans bothered to investigate and remember in the first place because, if you are a tool-maker, it’s easier to investigate and remember than to, um, ‘reinvent the wheel’. We could trace bicycle history back to the wheel and beyond, but let’s keep it brief and just consider the design of mountain bikes.

Mountain biking started when some California bike racers moved to the country. Their new environment confronted them with the problem of riding, and of course racing, on gravel roads. Their road bikes’ narrow tires were too unstable for that purpose, so they found some preexisting cruiser bikes with wide tires that would at least be ridable on the fire roads near their homes. The cruiser bikes were not perfect. They were heavy and hard to pedal, so the riders raced them downhill. Even that compromise lead to problems though. The brakes and bearings on the cruisers couldn’t survive that kind of abuse. The riders replaced the brakes and bearings with motorcycle and road bike components. The riders soon found that the revised cruisers, now possessing cassettes of gears with the road bike bearings, were capable of riding on rough trails as well as fire roads. Trail riding prompted further modifications to the bikes. These guys in rural California invented the mountain bike, but not all at once and not out of the blue. They worked through a progressive series of problems, each leading to the next, until they arrived at a relatively stable final design that did something very different from the structure they started with. The mountain bike evolved. Of course, this is microevolution; the mountain bike is just a tweaked cruiser bike. Neither the mountain bike nor the cruiser looks anything like an old penny-farthing with the giant wheel in front. The lineage is clear though, and bike development has proceeded by the same basic process from the wheel to the velocipede to the mountain bike. Moreover, the agents in this process acted as selective forces and were acted upon by selective forces – and not just physically. As designers altered the bikes, the bikes’ new capabilities altered their conception of where and why they might ride a bike and thus their purpose in the next set of modifications.

To fingerprint design as the ID scheme misrepresents it, we really must close that Cartesian Circle by presuming intent for any and all endpoints we wish to examine. Then the history of that point is seen separated from any branches or external contingencies. If the mountain bike comes from a mountain bike factory, surely the mountain bike factory holds the entire explanation for its structure. When defined after the fact like this, the history of a structure looks irreducibly complex; if you take away one part it is rendered meaningless because it is its own context. ID’s analogy between designed structures and biological structures not only fails to distribute the middle, it doesn’t even accurately depict design processes as we undertake them. People, the source of everything we know about design, don’t start cold from an undetermined purpose and design toward that purpose in an implacable, irreducibly complex chain of events. Replication may work a bit like that, but not design.

What this method really does is provide for a hierarchical relationship between presumed intent and biological structures, where the intent causes the structure. Such a relationship seems to allow for a supernatural cause. This is why ID’s advocates have gone through such contortions to make it work (or at least look like it might) – see the Wedge Document. Yet the intelligent Design model fails even as a portal for the supernatural. It offers no solution to the interaction problem in dualism. This is a real problem because, as far as I can tell, one tenant of ID is that the design process in nature is ongoing. To drag a spiritual being into the material world and have it start doing things, one has to explain how it does so without being in some way beholden to the same laws, and thus part of the same causal history, as the rest of matter. If there is no good explanation, then the spiritual being from another realm is just a bizarre, unexpected new part of nature. Though this may seem an obscure technicality at first glance, here is an example of just how sticky the problem really is.

Descartes tried to defend the independence of the mind from brain processes. He offered the analogy of a virtuoso violinist asked to play on a broken instrument. The listener would have no clue as to his true skill. Likewise the damaged, diseased, or intoxicated brain may just be a broken instrument unable to give voice to the intact mind which plays upon it. Unfortunately, this analogy raises the question: May the virtuoso be a virtuoso without a violin? Study of music theory or any other purely mental operation is insufficient. He must play a physical violin. Yet the skill he gains is a mental faculty which is subject to his creativity, religious concepts, and emotion. The brain and its adjuncts affect the mind. There is no escape from this problem in a world of two supposedly separate substances in active contact. Deism or a strict idealism offer the only outs (and Deism may just push the problem back in time). Either of these scenarios keeps the supernatural supernatural, but thereby makes it irrelevant to any practical understanding of nature/matter. This is why it is best for religion that science adhere to methodological naturalism. This is why intelligent design is insidious as well as invalid, for all concerned. It robs religion of any hope of philosophical integrity, just as it misrepresents biology. Reason enough for everyone to drop this bullshit for good.

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Dear Ueli,

You know what this is about. It’s what everything has been about for – how long has it been – ever? I mean the little dust-up on Everest. Let me reassure you, I am writing as a great admirer and friendly correspondent. You are living the dream, and showing all us amateur climbers how to do it. We are all limited by what we think is possible, and you have made a career of crushing the limits. So I am not a critic, but I do have a concern.

I’m not so worried about the actual events on the Lhotse face. I don’t know shit about Sherpas or their culture, but I am a field observer of human psychology, as a hobby and in my job, and here is how it looks. It appears that the Sherpa crew on the face was pissed because you guys passed them and may have knocked a bit of ice down. As climbers, we know how frustrating it can be to have a stronger team pass us. We accept it as part of the game, though. It’s the same with ice fall; even the best climber is going to knock a little ice down, no matter how careful he or she is trying to be. However, the reaction you got didn’t come from climbers, did it? It came from technicians trying to get a job done.

I’ve tasted that flavor of hostile indignation before. The first time was from a Chicago cop. I used to run a route that took me past a housing project. Rain or shine, I did that run for a year and a half, until the cop stopped me. He didn’t yell or throw rocks at me, but he made it clear that I was not to run the route past the project anymore. Unpleasant legal consequences would follow, he implied, if I did not comply. Before my encounter with the cop in Chicago, I had the naïve idea that laws and cops were there to keep the peace and let the citizens get on with their business. Afterwards, I understood that laws and cops were there to prevent trouble for cops and the legal system. Seems like the situation is the same with the fixed lines on Everest and the people associated with them.

These people – the functionaries of the Big Expeditions to the Classic Routes on the Big Mountains – have a different view of risk than climbers. A climber’s view of risk is like a card player’s. He pushes the chips to the middle of the table and then does his best to get them back. These other people do their best not to have to play the game. Who can blame them? They have a job to do.

Which brings me to my concern. What do you want with mountaineering anyway? We all know that mountaineering is for those who can’t do anything else. Hell, in fifteen years or so, I know I’ll be trading in my tools for a piolet and begging my kids to drag me up some god-forsaken volcano (assuming I live that long). Of course, on Everest you were after the West Ridge, which is not a mountaineer’s route. No doubt you were motivated in part by the tale of the route’s first ascent. I have heard Tom Hornbein talk about the original climb. Even back then, he and Willie Unsoeld had to fight the mountaineering expedition mentality to get to their climb. That mentality is institutionalized now in the environs of all the prominent peaks, high and low. Did you hope to escape it in this day and age on the most prominent peak of them all?

I know you have a job to do too, and you are beholden to the weasels in marketing because of it. However, you shouldn’t feel compelled to stoop to mountaineering. You must realize that the weasels in marketing would rather not have you around. They would prefer an endless parade of reality TV celebrities coming off the summit of the world’s highest. Those wankers come much cheaper and are easier to liquidate. The climbing community would recognize the significance of a West Ridge ascent, but the rest of the world would see only the summit of Everest, and they would be glad that you had finally got there, after all your preliminary fiddling in the Alps.

You ratify the popular perception by adding an Everest summit to your resume, and in the process, you increase the value of wanker stock. To us climbers, you represent the consummate talent and discipline required to push the chips to the middle and reliably pull them back. To the summit industry, you represent recklessness bordering on assholery, by playing your game in their workspace. Even worse, when their stock goes up, yours goes down. As the notoriety of the high summit grows, lending credence to the wankers’ claim (explicit or implicit) that the high summit is the Grand Prize of climbing, the significance of soloing the North Face of the Eiger in a few hours, shrinks.

Don’t get me wrong, an artist like you should do what moves him without listening to anybody else, especially a duffer like me, and if you are moved to go back to climb the West Ridge of Everest, you should. Furthermore, you have nothing to be sorry for regarding the fight with the rope-techs on the Lhotse face. I’ve read all the anti-imperialist narrative and social justice analysis regurgitated in response to this incident. Sherpas attacking a bitchy client is a revolution. Sherpas attacking an independent team of climbers is just a good, old-fashioned turf war. So, I think there’s nothing to stop you from going back in principle, but please consider before you do: Is it good for business?

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Just Off Highway 212..

..in Southwest Montana, hard by the Crow agency, stands a  prominent hill with a monument marking a mass grave which holds the remains of members of the 7th Cavalry. On a sunny day in Spring, I stood on that hill and saw what happened to Custer and his command in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

They lost it. They lost it long before the last of them died on the hill, though. The evidence, especially the fact that the last of the command did die on the hill, is manifest on the surrounding landscape. Markers dot the ridge and valley leading to the site of the ‘last stand’ indicating the spots where men died along the way, died while standing separate from the command, or fell trying to flee the hill. Nobody could really know what transpired that day, but anyone could know, just by standing there, that the hill was a terrible place to be.

The view from the hill was panoramic. All the  features of the terrain, including the perpendicular ridges which form the sides of surrounding gullies, were exposed. The commander of a military unit would naturally seek such a vantage point, due to both his training and a natural instinct to be able to see an oncoming threat. But even at the beginning of his maneuver to the hill, Custer had ceased to be the commander of a military unit trying to win a battle.

As his trained instinct to retreat and regroup was misplaced, so was his natural instinct to keep his enemy in view, for from an opponent’s perspective, anyone standing on the hill became a perfect target outlined against the sky. Any move to escape the hill could not be concealed. From the vantage point of those defending the command, targets seen from the hill had to be picked out from the background of grass and dirt on the slopes, if those targets were not completely hidden behind the perpendicular ridges. Custer’s maneuver to the hill was a mistake, but it was not the first such mistake in human history, nor the last. It was one of a surprisingly broad and common category of mistakes, which afflict the capable as easily as the bumblers among us.

Decades later, the pilots of Air France flight 447 experienced something very similar to Custer’s  retreat up the hill. Just as the pilots were maneuvering through a series of thunderstorms, the airspeed sensors on the outside of the airliner froze over. The plane’s computer then shut off the auto pilot to avoid the automated system’s reacting to invalid data from the malfunctioning sensors. Now in control of the plane and unable to make sense of the numbers anymore than the computer could, the acting pilot reverted to instinct and training. His instinct was to get out of the situation. The first bit of training which came to mind for escaping a bad situation was one which told him to add power and pull the nose of the plane up. He even tried to confirm his instinct with his fellow pilot, at one point saying, “I’m in TOGA, eh?” – an acronym for ‘Take Off, Go Around’, a maneuver used to recover from an aborted landing, for example, by adding power and climbing. All the while, the stall warning was screaming, indicating a problem which demanded everything but elevating the nose of the plane and climbing.

I have great sympathy for the pilot of flight 447, because I have done what he did, but I was luckier. I was on one of my first long rock climbs with an equally inexperienced partner. We set out on a warm, clear day amid the long days of Northwest Summer on a route well within our capabilities. We knew we could climb it easily in a day, so we left without jackets, headlamps and extra food. However, the route was longer and more convoluted than we had anticipated. By the time we peeped over the summit for a view across the range to the sea, we had to shade our eyes from the lowering sun. We knew it was late, but had no idea how late, since we had left our watches with the headlamps. As we descended, which we had planned to do mostly by climbing down, it got dark and we were forced to use the rope more and more often.

For those who are unfamiliar with climbing techniques, descending by use of the rope involves doubling the line through a loop of nylon webbing anchored to the rock, with or without a metal ring to hold the rope off of the nylon, then using a friction device attached to one’s seat-harness to slide down the two sides of the doubled rope at once. Typically, the descending climber holds one hand above the friction device for balance while the other hand is on the rope below the device, controlling the rate descent by increasing or decreasing tension on the free end of the rope. Before coming to the end of the rope, the descending climber must find a new spot to anchor another loop of nylon. The second climber then comes down the rope to the new anchor, the team pulls the rope through the original anchor, doubles the line through the new anchor and repeats the process.

In the growing dark, new anchor opportunities became harder and harder to find. We had to get down, because we planned to get down, because we felt an instinctive aversion to the prospect of being stuck on the face, and because my partner had to be at work the following morning. As I approached a wide ledge, I could not find an anchor. I swung back and forth across the face, letting a little more rope through my friction device on each pass to allow a wider and wider arc. Now past the ledge and increasingly desperate for an anchor point, I pushed back to the left one more time and felt the ends of the rope slip past my lower hand. My upper hand reflexively locked onto the rope above the friction device as the ends pulled free of the device. Luckily, my grip on the rope with the upper hand held and kept me from falling several hundred feet down the face.

Instantly, I forgot about the prospect of not finding an anchor, my partner’s missed work day, and the dreariness of being stuck out for the night. Climbing hand over hand back up the rope to the ledge, I was re-oriented to the situation. We were not racing to finish a successful climb or out of options because I couldn’t find an anchor by starlight. We were trying to descend a complex route in the dark, and had hit an endpoint. We would not die of cold or thirst or starvation that night. My partner joined me on  the ledge. We secured the rope ends to a bush and then curled around the stem of the small plant as if it could provide some warmth and shelter. We shivered the night away and by morning’s light, found a large flake of rock ten feet right of our little bush to tie off as an anchor. My partner lost a vacation day, but kept his job.

As I climbed more, I spent fewer unprepared nights out, partially because I learned the hard way, but partially because I learned the checklists that all climbers employ. There is a packing checklist, a checklist for use prior to climbing onward from an anchor, a checklist for use prior to descending the rope, a checklist to run before pulling the rope through a top anchor, etc. Checklists have saved me on many occaisions.

A checklist almost saved flight 447, though they did not know they were using one. When the senior officer arrived in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot were racking their brains trying to sort out what had happened, even as they acted to achieve what they knew that they must achieve – making the plane climb instead of descend. When they asked the senior officer what they should do, he replied, “I don’t know.” In effect, he performed the most vital step in any checklist – he stopped himself and began to pay attention to what was going on right then, in his own head as well as in the airplane. Unfortunately, by the time he’d helped his fellow officers clarify their mental states and reconcile their actions with the events at hand, the airplane was one and a half seconds from the ocean. Even Custer might have been saved if he’d had a checklist, despite the more complicated nature of his situation.Custer faced a special challenge because his opponents had a keen understanding of the psychological elements which make a checklist so useful.

One element in particular is the key benefit of checklists and the one which we are in constant danger of forgetting. Even in the definitive popular treatment of checklists, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, the key element gets only superficial treatment. He touches on it in his description of the engine failure checklist for single engine planes.

It is slimmed down to six key steps not to miss for restarting the engine, steps like making sure the fuel shutoff valve is in the OPEN position and putting the backup feul pump switch ON. But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE. Because pilots sometimes become so desperate trying to restart their engine, so crushed by the cognitive overload of thinking through what could have gone wrong, they forget this most basic task. FLY THE AIRPLANE.

The admonition in step one of his example could be generalized to the statement: Remain oriented to your situation. Gawande can’t be blamed for focusing on the other utility of checklists – their ability to help us prioritize the necessary steps in a complex task and thus break the task into manageable bites. After all, he is primarily concerned with the application of checklists to prevent errors in the relatively controlled, but complex, environment of the operating room. However, his focus risks neglecting the source of our potential disorientation, a mental flaw which Custer’s antagonists at the Little Bighorn understood as vital, and which the course of the battle illustrated so well.

As opposed to Custer and his command, the warriors camped along the river were not soldiers. They had experience with war, but operated as a group of individuals rather than a formal unit. They had leaders, but no commanders. Their only training in the cooperative use of force came from hunting buffalo. Yet they understood their position. Management of the warriors’ psychological state was the leaders’ primary task. The leaders had to direct their warriors by example and exhortation.  And from the buffalo hunts, they knew that if they could control their targets’ psychological state as well as their own, success was guaranteed. The assembled tribes had a method, but not a plan and part of their method was aimed at breaking all plans set against them.

When Custer moved against the encampment on the Little Bighorn, he had a plan. He planned to trap the band of wayward natives between the two elements of his command, preventing the Indians’ escape or forcing them to surrender and return to the reservation. His plan was one for a pursuing force, an aggressive force. It was a plan for a military unit, utilizing a military unit’s capacity for coordinated attack and maneuver. For a moment, it looked like the plan might work. The Indians were surprised by the force which crossed the river to attack from the South under the command of Reno. But the Indians had a larger contingent of warriors than expected. In the face of determined resistance, the Southern attack failed and the troopers fell back in disarray.

When the initial thrust of Reno’s force stalled, a number of the warriors still mobilizing in the camp stopped to perform ceremonial rites. Crazy Horse in particular took so long in ritual preparations for battle that the younger men following him became impatient. Perhaps the drama was part of his plan too, orchestrated to focus and rouse his entourage. At any rate, Crazy Horse’s rituals were vital for his own role in the fight. The preparations served as Crazy Horse’s checklist, to protect him from the very thing he would soon attempt to do to his enemies – turn them from men into buffalo. When he emerged from his lodge, he was ready to fight his way. During the subsequent action, he would ride back and forth in front of the enemy lines blowing an eagle bone whistle, drawing fire. He would cut through a line of moving soldiers and lead his band of warriors in among the enemy forces. His actions would serve to prevent concerted action by his foes and force them to fall back on the familiar and the comfortable – predictable instinct and the rote lessons of training.

Custer’s attack never really got started. Confronted by a large force rallied to face him, he seems to have had difficulty orienting himself to the new situation. He doesn’t even seem to have had that critical moment which flight 447’s senior officer provided when he said, “I don’t know.” Instead, he retreated toward the hill.  In a subsequent interview, Hollow Horn Bear, a warrior who witnessed the battle gave this description:

Interviewer: After the soldiers got to the ridge, did they keep together in one body, or did some of them make a stand to give the others a chance to select a position?

Hollow Horn Bear: Soldiers kept together all during the fight. The soldiers would shift positions, but no stand was being made to do so.

Another witness, a warrior named Two Moons, gave a more incisive analysis:

…Custer was a brave man. I give him credit for attacking a people that vastly out numbered his – but something was the matter with his men. They did not run nor seek shelter, but stayed right out in the open where it was easy to shoot them down. Any ordinary bunch of men would have dropped into a watercourse, or a draw, where they could have fought for a long time. They acted and shot their guns like something was wrong with them. They surely had too much of that whiskey. That bunch of men should have fought for a long time, but it did not take long to kill them all.

Most telling was the view from the perspective of the encampment, as witnessed by Julia Face:

Interviewer: Did the Indians reach the high ridge ahead of Custer, and did he at any time charge them and drive them off?

Julia Face: None of the warriors reached the high ridge ahead of Custer. The Indians acted just like they were driving buffalo to a good place where they could be easily slaughtered. Custer never charged.

Maybe Custer had no choices that day. But maybe the one critical step in any checklist, the pause to reorient, would have helped his command acquit itself better even if it could not have saved him and his men. Because that one step is the only thing that can save the human part of the mind from itself. Without the jolting stop at the start of a checklist, the part of us that thinks will dwell on its plans and motivations rather than wading into the delays and discomforts immediately before it. A pilot’s mind, focused on the goal of gaining altitude, will tune out the stall warning since it is not helping him achieve his desire. A climber’s mind will forget about the end of the rope since it is not helping him find the next anchor. Then, with the human part of the mind occupied with its own concerns, the buffalo mind is left to act in its place. According to its nature, the buffalo mind just does something. It reacts to the anxiety assailing it from within and the simple cues coming from the outside with a series of programmed behaviors which ignore the future and the immediate past. It functions as a behavioral “Hail Mary” when the thinking part of the mind has checked out. It may freeze in the face of an immanent threat and not fly the plane. It may run over the edge of a cliff to escape.  Even without encouragement, the buffalo mind, with its unselected, rote behaviors, will often lead us to a good place where we can easily be slaughtered.

Notes: Interviews are obtained from the books, Indian Views of the Custer Fight by Richard G. Hardorff, Lakota Noon by Gregory F. Michno, and Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight by Richard G. Hardorff. Further information is available at the Custer Battlefield in South Central Montana via our wonderful, woefully underfunded National Park Service

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