Seven Wonderings of the Ancient World: Life's Universal Tough Judgment Calls

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Minding one’s own business commonly means not minding other people’s business, but its literal meaning is still implied–don’t mind others’ business because you have business of your own to mind.

The Duchess in Alice in Wonderland is a bipolar loon, her credibility shot by the time she makes this pronouncement, but Carroll masterfully conveys sense through nonsense, and there’s truth in what the Duchess says. If we all acknowledged that we’re all dealing with the same tough judgment calls, we would be more responsive and our worldly wisdom would evolve faster than it does.

That’s the case I’ve been making for the past few weeks. In fact, it’s behind what I’ve been writing about for over a decade. I’ve drafted whole books about it, one called “Negotiate with Yourself and Win: Doubt Management Skills for People Who Can Hear Themselves Think” and another called “Doubt: A User’s Guide.” Mind Readers Dictionary topics are mostly related to these generic tough judgment calls, their histories and natural histories and the common moves we make in dealing with them.
 

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Two weeks ago, with the term ACIDs (Ambiguous Cues; Incompatible Dos) I proposed a definition of a tough judgment call. On an issue that matters to you, you can’t read the situation clearly (ambiguous cues) and the actions open to you counteract one another (incompatible dos), so you can’t hedge.

I promised a short, non-definitive list of generic tough judgment calls, and here’s the first of two sets: The “seven wonderings of the ancient world,” the tough judgment calls life has been dealing with all along (by means of evolution and behavior). Next week I’ll provide the “seven wonderings of the modern world,” the additional tough judgment calls brought on by our human powers of speculation, foresight, and imagination, which give us new things to wonder about.

Here they are, the seven wonderings of the ancient world, with us since the beginning of life about 3.6 billion years ago:

1. Porcupine Dilemma:
Whether or not to combine with this. (Should I be open or shut to interaction with something outside?) Porcupine, as in How do porcupines make love? Carefully. Getting close to something or someone presents both benefits and costs. Be open to nutrients but closed to toxins, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which are which.

2. Siamese Twin Dilemma:
Whether or not to stay with this. (Should I stay or leave an existing interaction?) Siamese twins, as in, Will separating increase or decrease one’s chances of survival? Staying (holding) and leaving (folding) a relationship with anyone or anything present both benefits and costs. Stay in productive relationships and leave counterproductive ones, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which are which.

3. Aphid’s Dilemma: Whether or not to be consistent here. (Should I be constant or vary a behavior?) Aphids are “facultatively sexual”–in other words, they reproduce by cloning, except when their environment becomes stressful. Then they reproduce sexually so that their offspring will be more varied and maybe will have a better chance of surviving. Sticking with or experimenting with a recipe, habit, or plan presents both benefits and costs. Stick with a plan that’s working, change a plan that isn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.

4. Serenity Prayer Dilemma:
Whether or not to try to change this. (Should I impose or accommodate now?) The serenity to accept the things you can’t change, the courage to change things you can. Serenely accepting what you could change is costly, but so is courageously trying to change things that you can’t change. Beavers build dams, imposing their preferences on big waterways, but accommodate the weather (which they can’t change) by growing thick coats. When to be yang (assertive) and when to be yin (receptive)? Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to do which.

5. Missile Defense Dilemma:
Whether or not to pay attention to this. (Am I receiving a signal or just picking up noise?) Missile defense, as in, Is that spot on the radar an incoming ballistic missile (signal) or a flock of birds (noise)? Assuming something is significant or insignificant presents both benefits and costs. Ants and antibodies retaliate against invaders but not against inside allies, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which (for example, with auto-immune diseases in which bodies treat healthy tissue as an invader).

6. Croaker’s Dilemma:
Whether to signal or not. (Is it time to shout or time to hide?) Croaker, as in the problem facing male frogs, who have to croak loud and long to attract females but in the process attract predators. Sending signals (including fake signals) presents both benefits and costs. Signal when it’s advantageous and don’t signal when it’s disadvantageous, and sometimes it’s hard to tell when to do which.

7. Slime’s Dilemma:
Whether to act on behalf of the individual or the collective. (Should I put myself first or not–is it time for me or we?) Slime molds spend part of their life cycle as independent cells and part as multicellular organisms and have evolved the biological “wisdom to know the difference,” that is, when to do which. Sometimes it’s united we stand and divided we fall–and sometimes it’s the reverse, and sometimes it’s hard to know which is which.

Recognizing the long, venerable natural history of these tough judgment calls should be a source of solace. Don’t panic, it’s organic. The tough judgment calls you struggle with are not evidence that you’re some fallen failure. They’re standard issue. They come with the territory of being alive.

You don’t get this from all versions of natural history. Religious fall-from-grace myths tell you you’re degenerate (unlike the perfect beings of yore), tempted as you are to not join, to quit, to be inconsistent, to be un-accepting, to ignore the signs, to hide, or to act selfishly. That’s unrealistic, counterproductive hogwash. All life is ambivalent about such behaviors, trying to guess when to engage in them and when not to. There never was a perfect being who got it right all the time. We didn’t fall from grace, we rose from slime.

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