The Buffalo Theory ~ Feeling Smarter Than We Really Are

Herd members must keep up or else be left behind – no exceptions. Even new-born calves must keep pace. So, should we not treat people the same way?

Social-Darwinisis the belief that some are created more equal than others, which is obvious despite the famous words at the beginning of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident… etc., etc.” This and other forms of social pseudo- science is the topic of Chapter Three in Susan Jacoby’s book, “The Age of American Unreason.” Better known today by the popular phrase, “Survival of the Fittest,” social-darwinism postulates that successful people and societies succeed because they are superior and so, by right, deserve to keep their spoils and rule over the rest of us. But Darwin never used the phrase, “Survival of the Fittest.” His science was about evolution, the origin of species, not about social ethics.

I find it curious that so many who find themselves on the political right today reject the “hard” science of Darwin but embrace the pseudoscience of Social-Darwinism, which was based loosely on Darwin’s work when popularized in the United States during the Gilded Age in America.

Diverting from the primary theme of this posting briefly, when political campaigns run out of new credible ideas to address the issues that concern voters, they become defensive, protecting their base support by attacking the opposition obliquely and by reaf- firming core party values. Recall the old adage: The best defense is a strong offense. They do this by going after individuals, raising doubts about their opponents’ “true” motives and qualifications for the job, and by fanning the flames of fear and doubt — sometimes under the guise of injecting a little “harmless” humor into the campaign.

Don’t you just love politics?

In light of the recent McCain campaign videos blaming Obama for the high price of gasoline and comparing him to Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton and Moses, this seems to be the strategy of the moment for the McCain team. The Obama team moved to counter this negative tactic with an attack of their own, not against McCain personally, but against his ideas for bringing down the price of gasoline by giving Big Oil more tax breaks and pledging to continue the business-friendly fiscal policies of George W. Bush.

Along similar lines, politically-motivated, freelance authors are using the Internet to circulate rumors and innuendos intended to help their party of choice prevail this year. For example, a close friend who leans sharply to the right recently shared one such example of “viral disinformation” with me. It was a Please-Forward-This-To-Everybody-You-Know email claiming that the Democratically-led Congress is planning to implement a “windfall profits” tax on retirement income. Perhaps you have received a version of this yourself… perhaps not. But rest assured; the claim is false. Check it out here on If this or a similar com- munication resonated with you and added conviction to your resolve to vote for your party this year regardless of your feelings for or about your party’s presumptive nominee, then you have been made to feel smarter than you really are – not unlike after drinking a few beers. Bear with me, you’ll understand what I mean by this in a moment.

Another close friend, closer to the center politically but also leaning farther to the right than myself, shared the following allegory from an old episode of the once popular TV show, Cheers , which is also making the rounds on the Internet:

“Cliff is seated at the bar describing the Buffalo Theory to his buddy, Norm.

‘Well, you see, Norm, it’s like this… A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members. In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Now, as we know, excessive intake of alcohol kills brain cells. But naturally, it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine.  And that, Norm, is why you always feel smarter after a few beers.'”

For many, Cliff’s explanation for why we feel smarter after consuming a few beers might seem plausible, especially since so many people believe the premises… ONE: that “culling” herds in the wild of weak and infirm members is beneficial to the larger body because it makes the herd less vulnerable to predators, and TWO: that alcohol kills brain cells. But neither premise is true, not really.

In the wild, herd members must keep up or else they are left behind – no exceptions. Even new-born calves must keep pace. But studies have shown that herd speed does not reduce vulnerability to predation, mass behavior does. According to something called the selfish herd hypothesis, herds of various species move for the most part instinctively based on grazing preferences and seasonal changes, not anxiety caused by fear of predators. Individual herd members decrease predation risk by moving toward one another, which is called aggregation. Previous studies have shown that aggregation can form using simple movement rules designed to decrease each animal’s domain of danger.

As for alcohol destroying brain cells, taking out the weakest first — alcohol surely does affect the brain, as we all know, causing slurred speech, clumsiness, slowed reflexes, and a loss of inhibition. But alcohol doesn’t destroy the brain cells, per se, to cause these problems. Rather, alcohol dilates the channels in the cellular structure that regulates the flow of calcium. More calcium than normal flows into the cells and stimulates increased activity. It is this increased activity that, over time, if consumption is heavy enough and uninterrupted by periods of abstinence, causes a loss of nerve cell end segments, to include those found in the brain. But this effect has been shown in clinical studies to be general and gradual among heavy drinkers, affecting different people in different ways and at different rates.

So, even if you haven’t been drinking a beer while reading this, you should feel smarter now – right? The facts have been reveled and documented. But Cliff’s buffalo herd allegory isn’t really about feeling smarter after a few beers, is it? The subliminal message is about how society would be better off without laggards, a belief that I’ve found to be widely held by those on the political right.  The extension of this is, of course, why encourage them? They’re not worth our time and effort. Go far enough with this line of thinking and we find ourselves on the slippery slope of fascism.

I responded to the friend who sent me Cliff’s allegory by saying, “Would that it really worked that way, ___________ (name omitted here)… the beer drinking part of it at least. But the implication of this snippet from the old Cheers episode is really that society is not unlike a herd of buffalo wherein the less productive members slow the progress of the whole. Conclusion: either leave them behind for the wolves or drag ’em along with you. There’s possibly a third option though, one that mitigates the burden of the weak to society: nurture them from our excess so that many might be better able to contribute, which if I recall my Scripture correctly, is the Christian thing to do. Which option do you choose, my friend?”

Not that my friend isn’t a Christian and generous person, for I know him well enough to know beyond a doubt that he is — both, but in his response, after saying,  “Well, go ahead and contribute,” my friend deigned to change the subject. He doesn’t send me forwarded emails of a political nature anymore.

I invite your comments, supportive or un…

Published in: on August 4, 2008 at 1:39 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow! This must be going around because I just had a similar online conversation with a very conservative friend of mine. Keep up the good work and may the buffalo roam.


  2. I have found some good information about the product Prevagen and the role of calcium. Of course the main target with Prevagen deals with Brain Health and not fighting alcohol, but there is still a correlation as you mention above.

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