Week 2, Gene Expression book club

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.

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15 thoughts on “Week 2, Gene Expression book club

  1. “Not Born Yesterday” trotted out the pop science hits in this chapter. Bowerbirds, stotting gazelles, rebellious fetuses. My grasp on evolution isn’t strong and mostly derived from popular science books, where I’ve seen these before.

    It was the bowerbird example that confused me though. He put a lot of weight on it at the end of the chapter, using it as the animal equivalent of the sort of human behavior and traits we’ll be seeing in the next five chapters.

    So it turns out that bowers are not costly signals after all (as I’d previously read), but rather reliable signals only because an exaggerated bower will be sabotaged by other males (there is a high cost for deception).

    This seems very odd to me. In this description, wouldn’t all the male bowerbirds then need to somehow know the true pecking order? How else can they identify the deceivers to bring low? So wouldn’t the males need to read a different signal (or set of them) to know that true pecking order? And wouldn’t it be more efficient for the females to key off that true signal for themselves instead?

    Likely I am missing or misinterpreting something. But if so, perhaps some more explication would have helped. So far in both chapters I’ve found Mercier’s examples a little confusing or ill-explained. And I didn’t even pick up on the mother-offspring stuff being an odd fit, as Razib mentioned above.

    That said, I do look forward to reading about the human mechanisms against gullibility he’s going to lay out in the next several chapters.

    I again enjoyed the novelistic “Autumn.” Corny as the descriptions of Elgin pacing in the fog were, a 40ish page chapter was an easy one-sit read. Given it was a European POV chapter, we were robbed of Senggelinqin’s stirring Blackwater Bay speech. But it was interesting to learn a bit about gunboat diplomacy. The inclusion of American and Russian neutral parties. How both the locals and the Taiping reacted to Elgin’s ships passing on the rivers. I hope to learn more big picture stuff later on in the book, but so far it’s a good yarn.

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  2. @Burger Flipper
    I interpret the bower bird thing to be a slight mis-representation from Mercier. It isn’t that the bower is costly, but that defending it is costly. The other birds aren’t punishing deception, they are trying to wreck other bowers while defending their own. Obviously, the most targetted bower is the best competing one, so a normal equillibrium will occur without an extravagant bower outlier. The researcher can’t fake the bower because the bird can’t defend it against all the attention it attracts.

    I also thought AHK was a good yarn, but vis-a-vis current politics, it was instructive to see the effects of a fait accompli brought about the actions of a single man choosing to go against policy. A warning as well as a consideration.

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  3. Thanks, Chris.

    The direct quote from Mercier is “The other bowerbirds took these extra berries to mean that the bowers’ owners were pretending to be of higher status than they actually were, and they vandalized the bowers to put the owners back in their place.”

    I’d bet you nailed it as to what the research actually said. Seems very sensible. But if that’s right, I don’t know if I’d count Mercier’s misrepresentation as “slight,” and I don’t feel like I’m nitpicking. Seems very sloppy. The writing and argument have seemed sloppy so far, so it’s gonna be tough for me to buy any extraordinary claims from him going forward.

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  4. I liked the parallels between animal and human gullibility he used. I honestly had never heard of any of this so it’s intriguing to me.

    I got kind lost in “Autumn” already. not sure if I’m clear on what I just read as i have zero background in this so a quick recap from anyone would be appreciated.

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  5. It’s obviously very early in the book, but thus far I’m not impressed by Not Born Yesterday.

    In chapter one, the author discusses how ludicrous is the idea that the Clintons were running a child sex trafficking ring. True, I have seen no evidence they were running one, but there is plenty of evidence that they were closely involved with Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislane Maxwell, who were indeed running one at the highest levels of power and wealth.

    I guess the author here is signaling he is one of the “good guys”.

    In chapter 2, I’m unimpressed by the Bowerbird example. The author tells us that a key to effective signals is that the signals are costly. And that when the male bowerbirds build the bowers, that incurs some cost, which is interpreted by the female bowerbirds as a sign of fitness. But then the author admits that it doesn’t really take that much time and energy to build a nest of junk, it’s not actually costly. Okay.

    The author then says the real cost is somehow incurred when any individual male bowerbird goes overboard and builds a truly Fantastic nest of junk. Because then the other male bowerbirds mess with his nest, because that one guy was getting all uppity. And because the male bowerbirds are all keeping tabs on each others junk nests, that somehow creates a “vigilance” cost that females like. The whole explanation seems tendentious and weak. I could explain this “vigilance” as follows: bowerbirds are a social species, and they hang out with each other. Sometimes the males mess with each other. They pay attention to what the other birds are doing, because they are a social species, like the vast majority of bird species who don’t build junk nests.

    There. That’s your cost incurred through “vigilance”.

    Certainly the author is on solid ground when he discusses the fact that when we can’t punish free riders, or when we allow sociopaths to incur zero costs for their sociopathy, we are in an unstable system. Here I’m thinking of all of the American foreign policy “experts” of the last 30 years who have been so consistently and spectacularly wrong and have paid zero consequences—we just recycled one of the worst of the bunch in Bolton, and he pulled a Jesus and became a hero for the left because he said Orange Man Bad. Helluva resurrection.

    I really enjoyed this last chapter of Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. I like the novelistic treatment, at least in this author’s hands. I look forward to the rest of the book.

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  6. @Chris

    Your explanation of the bowerbirds is clear and you used a lot less words than the author. As burgerflipper said, the episode doesn’t augur confidence for the rest of the book.

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  7. Autumn: This chapter highlights the role of missionaries in American foreign policy in the nineteenth century. They are supplying intelligence to Washington slanted towards the Heavenly Kingdom, publicly advocating recognition of the Heavenly Kingdom, acting as interpreters for American diplomatic missions (the effect of which the author describes as different from British interpreters of an imperial background), and gaining a freedom of movement and freedom of (non-Taiping) religion clause inserted into the peace treaty. Their role may be limited by the larger course of events here, but this what Russell Walter Mead describes as the origins of Wilsonianism.

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  8. @Robert, while the Taiping Civil War lasted from 1850 to 1864, it appears that the author will be focusing on the 1860s (the Autumn of the War) and Heavenly Kingdom. I don’t know enough about the period to evaluate the choice other than it seems like we’re skipping through some stuff at the beginning of the book.

    This chapter concerns the Second Opinion War btw/ British/French and China from 1856 to 1860. The war was triggered by Chinese seizure of a ship flying the British flag, but the underlying issue was that the British and French want China to open more ports to commerce. The British and French retaliated and then joined interested neutral parties, Russia and U.S., to meet in Peking to negotiate a truce. When the diplomats were ignored, in literal gunboat diplomacy, Britain launch an attack, which induced the Emperor to sign peace treaties, greatly expanding the number of ports open to commerce.

    A truce was maintained while the Western countries ratified the treaties at home and when they returned a year later, the British fell into a trap set by an Imperial General and were massacred. So the war is back on.

    During the interlude of the truce, Lord Elgin navigates up the Yangtze into the heart of darkness and we finally get a glimpse of the Heavenly Kingdom. After some initial hostilities, the rebels make a plea for arms, which the British refuse because they are neutral in the Civil War. And here I think is the main observation/ conundrum of the chapter, how can the British be neutral in the Civil War while in war/truce with the Empire? Maybe they should align with the rebels who seem to want much of the same things, but are the rebels capable of succeeding, and do they really want the same thing?

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  9. I’m a bit late to the party and behind on “Not Born Yesterday,” but anyway…

    “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”:
    – The insight into the thinking of the Western actors was good. The author’s moral slant is pretty far from my own, but the involved parties were frequently quoted directly or closely paraphrased, so the tacked-on judgement hardly bothered me. A topic like that is too prone to derailing conversations, so I won’t digress. I would like to read Palmerston’s speech against gunboat diplomacy, but alas, time is a luxury.
    – Elgin seems look a good leader. Among other things, foresight and patience are important: “Rather than opening relations with the rebels, they complained, he preferred to stick to his insufferable principles and look to the day when the Qing would regain control of the river’s full range—a day few desired to wait for, if they even believed it would ever come.”
    – But I wonder if he put too much trust in in Thomas Wade. If you have no other intel to go on, diplomatic diction can be a clue to competence, but it’s a slim one. I wonder how much Wade’s judgements were just a manifestation of British fixation on class.
    – “…in the longer span of China’s history, closure to the outside world was typically a sign of a dynasty’s weakness, not its strength.”
    I wonder whether this response to weakness was also a *rational* response. There’s an interesting contrast between modern-day debates about trade and globalization and the concerns that are mentioned in this chapter. Modern debates mostly seem to center around the economic impact, but as portrayed, the Qing were almost entirely concerned with prestige and appearances. The Europeans concerns were more mixed, but there was still a lot of focus on prestige, e.g., the clause in the Treaty of Tianjin banning the Qing state from referring to Europeans as “barbarians,” even privately.
    – The novelistic approach continues to please. I enjoy descriptions of battles, but my favorite detail was this: “mud gave way to intense cultivation—New World corn, millet, lettuce, radishes.” Apparently maize had already reached China in the sixteenth century, well before this time period.

    Answering some of my own questions from last week:
    Q: “… the Taiping army was bigger than I expected, according to Wikipedia. I wonder if those army size estimates are counting a lot of untrained peasants on the Taiping side and mostly professional soldiers on the Qing side?”
    A: Apparently the Taiping state never passed 30 million subjects, when China’s total population was on the order of 400 million, so it seems inevitable that the Qing army was more professionalized. Beyond that, the source for those army size numbers, an Osprey Men-At-Arms book, mentions at various points that “after 1854 there are increasingly numerous references to ‘conscripted peasants’ and ‘impressed villagers’ as constituting a sizeable proportion of most Taiping forces,” “90 per cent of the Taipings who attacked Ningpo in 1861 were ‘villagers pressed into their service’, as were 95 per cent of those captured at Kajow in 1862,” and child soldiers were in use. That said, the Qing army was apparently only a little more organized by comparison. The standing portion of their army was pretty ineffective but they were able to recruit a more effective volunteer force.

    Q: “Have the Asch and Milgram experiments been re-examined in replication crisis era? I remember the Stanford prison experiment is not seen so positively lately. Couldn’t find any mention on Wiki.
    A: Apparently both have replicated a few times, see https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=3846937286487312667 (ctrl-F).

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  10. Seems as if I really made a mistake pushing for Autumn, mostly based on the subject material.

    In fact the hatred made me go through my library list, and in January of 2019 I had checked out his book ” Imperial Twilight” but thought it was bad that I gave up and returned it. Still looking for a good history of the period.

    Fact check back to chapter 1: he claims the Qing were chopping people heads up by holding their “top knot”; wasn’t the objection to Qing rule that they made the Han wear a queue and NOT a top-knot?

    Likewise, we tried to place himself on the scale by calling this a rebellion or civil war; but goes ahead and just calls the events in India during 1857 the “Sepoy Mutiny”? I’m not judging either term but it does show the biases.

    Not that I mind bias! A good book can tell you a story, but a great one lets you see through it like a fine piece of lace. Hidden but visible.

    Would have appreciated some details on why the British and French cannon were superior during battle of the forts.

    Thought he did a good job drawing out the biases of Thomas Wade but doesn’t seem to understand that with Elgin. Was Elgin a proto modern westerner who felt guilty or a typical British colonial civil servant who thought he was superior to merchants?

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  11. Thanks ragak and charlie for the insights and context on “Heavenly Kingdom.” Interesting to learn the size and makeup of the Taiping state and the scope of the Indian Rebellion that delayed Elgin (had to look that up.)
    Also that Asch and Milgram were more robust than I’d have expected.

    I definitely got the impression Elgin felt superior to both the Indians and Chinese he encountered. There was an explicit quote on learning to just ignore the Indian servants, but I think there was a second quote about the Chinese as well (though more of a throwaway). I have trouble scrolling through on a Kindle to find it though. Pretty sure Platt’s slant is not that he felt guilty.

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  12. Correcting my earlier comment:
    * Elgin seems _like_ a good leader
    * Gladstone, not Palmerston, led the anti-war faction

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  13. @ryan
    I think it is important to distinguish between the kind of QAnon claims and what Epstein was doing–those are not the same “-philias”. Nevertheless, I share your annoyance at the author, and I hope there is some discussion in the GNXP posts/comments of the relative believability of the Comet Pizza theory vs the Russian Collusion theory, because for my money Comet Pizza required a great deal less gullibility to believe in than Russian Collusion. But I hope to hear from others about this after reading more of NBY.

    @charlie
    Yes, I had similar thoughts about Lord Elgin, and I want to read a biography of him now. Wonder if there is a good one out there…

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  14. About Epstein, my impression is that he basically was running a network of 17 y.o. prostitutes (who freely went in and out of his island), a thing that is being conflated with “child sex trafficking” because of the ambiguities of English (perhaps specially American English) language, where words like “girl” don’t differentiate between female children (“menina” in Portugal) and femal teenager/young adult (“rapariga” in Portugal) and “rape” between forced sex (“violação” in Portugual) and consensual sex with a person considered too young to consent (“abuso sexual de menores” and “atos sexuais com adolescentes” in Portugal).

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