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July 08, 2003

Proximate vs. Ultimate

You have two brothers. Brother A & brother B.

A has an IQ of 115 while B has an IQ of 85. A tends to be a "thinker" while B is more of an impulsive "doer." A becomes an accountant. B becomes a roofer.

A saves much of his salary, finds himself a long term g/f and marries her when they are both around 30 & settled in their careers. They have one child, who they send to private schools and a private university who doesn't have to worry about financial needs for the first 25 years. Additionally, A's child will have a nice estate after A & his wife die because the parents saved and invested wisely. A is very happy with his life and looks forward to a comfortable retirement.

B goes from paycheck to paycheck, has two marriages and two children by each marriage. He can barely support his kids, between rent, bar-tab and child support. His children don't have any money for college at 18 so they either work or rack up large loans. The family is generally a mess and B hasn't even had time to think about the idea of retirement even though his back his killing him after all his years working on roofs.

Who is planning wisely? Who is making the "best" decisions? Certainly almost all of us would prefer A's situation. But while A has one child, B has four. In ages past someone like B might not have had the means to keep even one child fed, and so not had any progeny. But in our era of plentitude (in the West) infant mortality is low. Ultimately, B may have more descendents than A.

Though A is making the "wise" proximate decisions when viewed on the individual and familial scale, it might be strange to think that B is displaying the wisdom of evolutionary ages.

Posted by razib at 12:28 PM




I agree razib. I think this is further evidence that the adoption of agriculture, and its subsequent enabling of the whole edifice of modern civilization (without which defectives like B would not be alive and reproducing) was a mistake. The jury is still out on whether it was a maladaptation, but if our increasing knowledge leads to our extirpation through nuclear, genetic, or other wmd-type events in say the next 400-500 generations, future insect historians may well so conclude. [A Planet of the Apes (the original) scenario if you will].
The interesting question is was there any alternative. Is agriculture an ineluctable outgrowth of an expanded cortex?-are we (and any subsequent intelligent species)predestined to cultivate cereals- or is there another way? If so-how can we ever go back?

Posted by: martin at July 8, 2003 01:15 PM


Who cares? My GENES might "care", but I don't. Are you happier taking care of yourSELF, or your GENES? Thanks to the power of the meme, we can let the genes go.

Posted by: PhlegmAsiv at July 8, 2003 01:56 PM


Yeah, but if we don't end up killing ourselves but instead continue to produce technology that allows our population to grow at the rate it has in the past couple hundred years, the expanded cortex could be seen as one of the most fruitful adaptations in the history of adaptations (from our standpoint.....or at least the standpoint of the genes that caused the expanded cortex).

Posted by: Joe P. at July 8, 2003 02:00 PM


This brings to mind a really rocking song, Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger (or see here also):

Been around the world and found
That only stupid people are breeding
The cretins cloning and feeding
And I don't even own a tv

Now, that song got a lot of air play. Yet it is stating a politically incorrect observation that is probably true. Rock-and-rollers can get away with saying stuff that even many comedians can't say. But they've got to do it in a rocking tune with good hooks.

Posted by: Randall Parker at July 8, 2003 05:54 PM


Your example brings up something that's bothered me for some time. Why is the ability to delay gratification and set resources aside for the future so closely tied to higher IQ? Everyone seems to accept that this is automatic, and indeed the two seem to run together - probably something to do with our evolutionary history and the R vs K reproductive strategies - but it hardly seems axiomatic that they *must* be together. Certainly there are examples of thrifty but somewhat dull people who have set aside fortunes, and even more examples of dissolute but intelligent people. So now that the forces of selection that acted up until the nineteenth century or so have vanished or reversed themselves, perhaps the closely correlated genetic factors that control self-denial and intelligence will begin to separate and be found in different people...

Posted by: bbartlog at July 8, 2003 05:57 PM


Another thing - I think that before heterosis and the Flynn effect fully run their course, our entertainment technology and contraceptive methods will improve to the point where the purely unintentional pregnancy rates of the poorest people (in America anyway) will drop. Of course, this doesn't address the fact that for some of the poor, having lots of children is their way of being successful since other types of success are out of their reach. But I am more sympathetic to them than to those who have children simply by accident.

Posted by: bbartlog at July 8, 2003 06:04 PM


bbartlog, The answer is pretty simple: The smarter you are the more complicated you can make your mental models. You can model the future and imagine more factors and how those factors will affect you at various points in time in the future.

Granted, the desire to horde can be instinctual. Intelligence itself is on top of that.

Posted by: Randall Parker at July 8, 2003 06:20 PM


I agree razib. I think this is further evidence that the adoption of agriculture, and its subsequent enabling of the whole edifice of modern civilization (without which defectives like B would not be alive and reproducing) was a mistake.

I agree too. Now, I'll go pick some wild fruit, dig up some juicy roots and kill and skin a wild chicken for dinner. Agriculture sure was a mistake. "Defectives" like B and our extirpation through WMD is a natural consequence of agriculture.

Posted by: Jondalar at July 8, 2003 08:07 PM


Scoff ye not young Jondalar-let's say a generation lasts 20 years-so let's conservatively say modern homo sapiens have existed for 5,000 generations-agriculture has been going on the last 600 and modern science for 20 (dating from Kepler's laws).
So the query is are we being born or are we decaying? I say decay. What it really boils down to:I HATE GRASS!

Posted by: martin at July 8, 2003 08:46 PM


Well, whether agriculture was a "mistake" or not, the bottom line is that any society that decided to give up agriculture would eventually be conquered by a society not so foolish. Modern society is definitely dysgenic, but getting rid of agriculture would be suicide...

Posted by: Oleg at July 8, 2003 10:03 PM


Does it really matter? We have are fairly good at transmitting the fruit of genius (invention) to the non-geniuses. As long as we allow geniusses to flourish then we're OK.

Of course at a certain (low) average IQ we may get resentment and/or the inability to find sufficient people with the right stuff to fill various middle man posts.

Posted by: Emmanuel Goldstein at July 9, 2003 01:00 AM


A carpenter I know has an IQ of 125. He does exquisite work; he and his wife plan their life well, and has five children, four of them adopted (Americans.) This carpenter never took to academia (though he reads widely), but his brothers and sisters (IQs 125 to well above) went in for engineering, physics, books and computer stuff. It has been pointed out that in the past, the skilled crafts employed many highly intelligent people because they had no options. One did as one's parents did. I wonder how this has changed the social landscape? Everybody wants to push computer keys for a living, and how many of them do we need?

Posted by: MaryClaire at July 9, 2003 06:24 AM


Randall/GC -
I had also thought of this argument, that intelligence allows for better planning. A similar argument would be that more intelligence also means a better ability to visualize the effects of future success or failure, and so lends more immediacy to the the long-term consequences of one's actions.
I'm not convinced though. Even a stupid person can realize that investing money will give them more money later; they might not achieve as high a return as a smart person, but the *concept* doesn't seem to be beyond someone who is not retarded. The benefits of storing up food, wealth, etc. just aren't that hard to grasp. Even if someone with IQ 85 didn't understand interest, investments et. al. they could still squirrel their money away under a mattress.
So here's an alternate hypothesis, based on four assumptions:
- intelligence has positive benefits (is selected for, other things being equal) everywhere (until the last few hundred years anyway)
- intelligence has a high metabolic cost (lots of calories to build/train/operate brain)
- agricultural societies provide a steadier supply of calories, so selection-by-starvation against large brain is less
- agricultural societies favor planners/storers much more heavily than other societies do

With these four assumptions (#3 is probably the weakest) you get a scenario where the same environment (agricultural society) that allows higher intelligence also promotes planning/storing behavior - so the two would tend to be found in the same people, at least until recently.

Or alternatively, a restatement of GC's position: if you're stupid, and you plan ahead, it won't do you as much good as someone who's smart - so you've got less incentive to bother...

Posted by: bbartlog at July 9, 2003 08:01 AM


why would we assume agriculture is conducive to dysgenesis? is china dysgenic in comparison to the hmong highlanders? or mongolia?

i think it is more proper to say that when a society reaches the point where there is enough surplus that the whole population partakes of plentidude, rather than just the elite, as in pre-modern societies, then we might reach a state of dysgenesis. in other words, dysgenesis was probably not happening just because of the neolithic revolution.

Posted by: razib at July 9, 2003 09:13 AM


I don't think anyone was arguing that agricultural societies are dysgenic in general - just that of late the progress that has been made has led us into a dysgenic state of affairs. Not to worry, we'll win through and transcend this whole inefficient stochastic genetic selection process ;-)

Posted by: bbartlog at July 9, 2003 09:19 AM


Also, I think our dear friend liberal individualism is the biggest culprit in dysgenesis not technology, and I think it is a Hegelian error to assume that liberal individualism was the inevitable extension of agricultural society.

If Nazi Germany had won WWII we'd all be praising agriculture for allowing the technology that set the stage for the WorldReich and helped society kill "defectives" with German efficiency.

Godless 2038, on the OTOH, might praise agriculture for allowing the technology to engineer a voluntary egalitarian society.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at July 9, 2003 09:35 AM


Unnatural Selection Indeed!

Posted by: Ole Eichhorn at July 9, 2003 10:36 PM


With respect to humans, given the advanced level of self-awareness they exhibit, the r vs. K concept becomes something of an evolutionary "choice". A species that can succeed as a K-selected species and then take it to the next level (which humans have clearly done with their fancy tools and hotshot cognitive abilities) gives itself the option of returning to a sort of gluttonous r-selected existence. We can see this subconscious choice being made in the exploding populations of a planet with finite resources. As we all know, this hotshot cognitive ability that humans should be so proud of can be remarkably short sighted on a macro-social level.

The discussion gets rather personal and complicated at this point because one needs to propose some sort of "objective" for the human race in order to continue. If we assume, as many do, that the objective is survival, then we must get more specific with that objective. Survival on an r-selected level can be most decidedly temporary. Such brute force methods of frantically producing offspring tend to get rather dangerous when they are combined with technology and a lack of natural predators. However the potential of K-selected survival combined with these concepts nearly defies limitations.

This is how I have arrived at the notion of Ultimate Survivability (those caps really drive it home, eh?). Acceptance of this as our "objective" means accepting the fact that preservation of the biosphere (Earth) precludes all other objectives. Now, before we all jump on the Earth First bandwagon or any other extremist solutions to achieving this end, let's remember that although human civilization currently present the greatest threat to the biosphere, it also presents the only real hope of ULTIMATE survivability. Although I don't give human civilization great odds for pulling a Bruce Willis a la Armageddon, chimps and dolphins haven't got a prayer on their own. If protecting Earth from cosmic debris (which will ALWAYS be a potential planet killer) or other planetary disasters currently beyond our conception, is a possibility at all then humans are where it's at.

In conclusion, achieving this end DOES NOT involve having lots of babies that will doubtlessly get a fair education at best, one that will most likely wither anyway under the disgruntled eye of unenthusiastic parents who will fail to bestow a robust sense of meaning or self-worth on their children (note...this is not to say of course, that all smart wealthy people are good parents and all dumb poor people are bad parents...we're talking odds here. Sorry, but I've read some of the posts here and I feel the need to cover myself). Achieving our said goal involves quality not quantity, finesse rather than brute force, and resisting the temptation of reproductively obsessive instincts.

Ironic that survival of the human species (and in turn the ultimate survivability of the planet) back when agriculture first caught on, depended on pumping them out (kids that is). Farmers doubtlessly see the benefits of raising their own farmhands to this day, but during the days of pre-Industrial subsistence farming, this was surely a no-brainer.

Posted by: 4fusion at July 10, 2003 07:39 PM