The second chapter of Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe is short. Much of it is re-warmed evolutionary biology, with a focus on ethology. If you’ve read Amotz Zahavi’s The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle or Dugatkin & Reeve’s Game Theory and Animal Behavior this will be a quick and easy chapter. Basically, the issue being explored here is that social cognition and conformity run up against the fact that there is an incentive to “cheat”, and communication is a two-way street.
Zahavi was the 20th century’s most eloquent expositor of the “handicap principle.” The idea that you need “hard-to-fake” signals to accurately convey information. So, for example, huge antlers are honest signals of robustness and genetic health, even though they are nonfunctional, and reduce individual fitness (it’s easier to find and catch animals with antlers). The idea that people are gullible and credulous in terms of communication and information processing runs afoul of the reality that communicators are incentivized to deceive you to optimize their own fitness (or, just “free rider” off communication altruism of conspecifics).
The strangest part of this chapter is that Mercier threw in a reference to Haig’s theories about mother-offspring genetic conflict due to different life-history incentives. The mother is optimized to not invest too much into the fetus so that resources are left for future offspring, while the fetus is incentivized to extract as much as possible (within reason; the offspring is related to future progeny, though in most mammals that might be 0.25 and not 0.50). All this is true, and it’s a robust area of science, but I thought this chapter would have benefited from more discussion of ethology and behavior, and less on evolutionary genetics.
Basically, the takehome here is that the gullible should be selected against…
Those readers who suggest that Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is novelistic surely have the right of it. The second chapter is filled with narrative detail, fixating on the peregrinations of a certain Lord Elgin, and touching up the nascent Franco-British alliance after the Crimean War, the Indian Rebellion, and finally, the arrival of British ships into Chinese territories.
The Taiping rebels make cameo appearances in this chapter, as the real action and viewpoint are that of Europeans and white colonialists more generally. The author does not follow chronology and seems to have jumped deep into the later stages of the rebellion when the Taiping and Manchu regimes were at an impasse. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom presents the Europeans as opportunists at this point, taking advantage of the Chinese civil war to extract more concessions out of the Manchu elite through targeted aggression. One of the themes of the chapter is the rise of European and white supremacism as a unifying ideology, which had spread to the Americans, who helped British soldiers against the Manchus when they were ostensibly neutral.
It seems the primary aim of this chapter is to flesh out the dramatis personae of European actors, who are going to play a crucial role in the later portions of the book (I know enough about the course of the rebellion to anticipate that the Europeans will, in the end, help the Manchus against the Taiping).
Note: Here is the page for the book club.