I saw a gold dress with white stripes. My daughter, looking at exactly the same image on exactly the same screen, saw a black dress with blue stripes, dispelling the notion that the differences in perception are due to variations in screen brightness. That was always nonsense. The differences in perception are due to very subtle differences in how each human brain calibrates colors to account for its subjective evaluation of the ambient light levels. Because there was no clue in the photo as to what sort of ambient light was illuminating the dress, the brains of the people viewing it picked a light source that made sense for them. The light level was ambiguous enough that about half of the brains picked a light source that made the dress look gold and the other half made it look black or blue. Thus was the reality of the dress’s color created by each individual brain. You’re welcome, said your brain.
There is no way to perceive an “objective” reality, except through understanding the brain’s mechanisms and recalibrating the subjective view presented by the brain to account for its biases and calibrations, but even then, the objectivity is only dimly glimpsed, like looking darkly through a mirror. To achieve some measure of objectivity in perception, the conscious mind must force a disengagement from the subjective perspective while simultaneously being immersed in it. But the brain, so powerfully devoted to presenting us with a useful view of reality, is more or less capable of the feat, probably because understanding that the brain is a reality-distortion machine is adaptively advantageous; i.e., it does exactly that for which the brain is intended, enhancing our prospects for survival and propagation, if we know that our brain often lies to us.
Look around you. Take a large object, like a sofa or a table or a desk, and consider the shape of the image your brain is presenting to you. I’m looking at a square table, but my brain is showing me something that looks for all the world like a diamond, sitting as it is, cater-corner, from my position behind a desk. But I am consciously aware that the diamond is a square. So, too, is my brain aware that the diamond is a square. From the diagonal view, at an angle of about twenty degrees, the brain turns a square into a diamond that appears a bit oblong, left to right. Creating the image in this manner helps the body orient itself properly in space. Imagine if the square table always looked square, no matter the position relative to it. It would be a most disorienting view, like floating through a dimensionless space, and disorientation is not conducive to continued survival.
Except perhaps to the woman deciding upon wearing it or not to a cocktail party, it doesn’t matter whether the dress was “actually” gold or blue. But the principle revealed by the differences in perception matters a great deal. And by ‘principle’ I don’t mean the notion that our brains often lie to us in presenting reality to us. That’s easy and obvious. By principle I mean the impetus the brain has for lying to us. The brain lies to us in its presentation of reality because it exists not to reveal truths, but to present a version of reality that will most advance the body’s twin prerogatives of survival and propagation. As reason is the hand-maiden of emotion, the brain is the hand-maiden of the body. It exists to ensure the body’s continuation in space and time. And as the brain is the hand-maiden of the body, the body is only a temporal capsule for the genes, or gonads. The system is something like a set of Russian Matryoshka (nesting) dolls, with the brain being the outermost doll, the body next and the genes at the core, with complexity decreasing like the dolls decrease in size the further into the nesting one goes. We see what the body tells us to see, and the body tells us to see according to what the genes have told it to see.
Thus is revealed the even deeper truth nesting at the core of the differences in the perception of dress color. Genes drive the perceptual train. But what drives genes? Evolution. Evolution made us see the dress as variously gold and white or blue and black. Evolution drives everything, yet like the perceptual biases and calibrations that have us seeing a dress in two different color schemes, we mainly choose to ignore it, sort of how reason is used only as a last resort before conflict, after all other avenues have been exhausted. Perhaps willful ignorance is also an adaptive trait. If the article on ‘you’re welcome’ in the New York Times Magazine this week is any guide, it may well be.
“You’re welcome” literally means ‘you are a welcome guest’. Welcome comes from Old English, wilcuma, meaning welcome guest. Not long ago, it was considered the standard reply to an expression of thanks. It was the coda to whatever transaction had transpired between two people. One person orders a hamburger happy meal; the other delivers the meal and takes payment; the first thanks the server; the server replies, “You’re welcome.” On to the next customer.
But like all greetings and cordialities, there is a latent hostility to the phrase, because between any two people who aren’t identical twins (and sometimes not even then), there is a latent hostility suffused in any interaction. Each person has a set of genes, those things that selfishly seek only to survive and propagate, the ones that we’ve established caused the dresses to look variously gold or black. Each person’s genes know that everything else in the environment, including other people most of all, represent potential threats to achieving their prerogatives. They also know that some things in the environment, including other people, represent opportunities to be exploited to their advantage. So the question a gene has in greeting another gene of its same type is “Are you wid’ me or agin me?
In the fast food transaction, there is an assumption of cooperation—that the two sets of genes will enhance their individual fitness by helping the other out. Each are ‘wid’ the other. But still, there is an element of hostility. One set of genes orders the food it needs for sustenance. The other set must scurry to get it if the bargain is to be consummated. Once he delivers the food and accepts the payment, the transaction is complete. If everything goes well, both sets of genes leave satisfied, but the server set has to scurry on to the next set of genes that wants food if he is to achieve his ultimate end of obtaining the necessaries of life. He is under pressure to quickly and efficiently dispense with the transaction. After he’s invariably thanked, “You’re welcome” does it. The cordiality to initiate the closure of the transaction could as well have been, “Fuck you, I’m glad this stressful little aspect of my life has concluded.” And the response would have been, “Fuck you, too,” meaning much the same.
Cordialities are ways our genes disguise to their advantage the latent hostility that they have for everyone except themselves. Allow me a couple of examples.
I remember being at a little café at the Brooklyn Produce Terminal in New York City early one morning (don’t ask), getting some coffee (regular, black, with cream—I don’t even know how to order at Starbucks) and a bite to eat, and a guy walks in the door to his own great fanfare. He hops in line and yells across the café in a thick Brooklyn accent, “Yo, wassup, Joey!”, talking and waving to the guy at the cash register taking orders. Joey barely looks up from punching numbers into the machine and responds, “Yeah, why the fuck you want to know, you writing a fucking book?” It was the most beautiful exchange of cordialities I have ever witnessed. It accomplished the end of greeting someone in a manner that establishes they are meant no harm, while at the same time being plaintively honest about the innate hostility that is felt from being in their presence.
This sort of brutally honest greeting is far more prevalent among men greeting each other than it is among women or when men and women meet.
Where I live, in the South, the culture of faux niceness prevents, except among the closest of male friends and then only in private, the sort of brutal honesty displayed by Joey. And failing to greet someone is considered ruder still. So the neighbor who I don’t like and who doesn’t like me greets me with a brusque, “Good Morning” when I happen to see him outdoors. His ‘good morning’ sounds about the same as saying “Fuck you” and viscerally meaning it. I return the favor with a reply just as vituperative. We might as well be snarling at each other like a couple of dogs. But the culture demands that we at least pretend not to be openly hostile to each other.
Women in the South condemn each other with protestations of fake concern, covering for their hostility while skewering them with insults, “Bless her heart, she’s so stupid she’d have to go to school just to learn how to be blond.”
The New York Times article stumbles and bumbles along its way to almost finding the true nature of greetings when it discusses how Tina Fey in “Mean Girls” figured out what verbal interactions among teenage girls were really about:
Ten years ago, Fey intuited that among girls, even the most banal conversational exchanges could be wielded as weapons. Regina is so studied in the art of verbal manipulation that every compliment she gives is a sneaky bid to amass more social capital:
Indeed, not just compliments, but greetings and cordialities even, are sneaky bids to amass more social capital, especially among women, for whom social capital is so important when it comes to surviving and propagating. Female genes know that the path to their eternity lies through lies, the more cleverly and relentlessly proffered, the better.
The takeaway from the dress story and the ‘you’re welcome’ story is therefore perhaps not what you think. The same dress can look different to people because our mind plays tricks on us. Big whoop. We knew that already. Words can carry any number of meanings depending on intent and context. Another big whoop. The takeaway is that we are nothing but packaging for a selfish little set of genes that have as their sole concern their own survival and propagation. Everything else, from telling us what to see, to the relentless friend or foe inquiries, to the ceaseless striving for status, are animated, directed and consummated by the genes, of the genes, and for the genes. And so now you know. You’re welcome.