Turning cheesecake into a weapon of war

Steven Pinker and many other evolutionary psychologists believe that music is cognitive cheesecake. That is, we have a lot of cognitive faculties working in concert, and musical appreciation and ability emerge out of the synthesis. But there wasn’t direct selection for music, as such. Musical appreciation then may not be adaptive.

And yet like reading and writing music clearly co-opts part of the human brain in terms of functional localization. There are people with brain injuries who can not speak well who nevertheless can sing well, and can communicate through song.

But perhaps most important, just because a trait did not emerge due to natural selection, does not entail that it might not be subject to later selection. One can make arguments that musical ability was adaptive at some point in human existence on the individual scale. But I have something else in mind: music is functionally important in war. Military marching bands did not arise coincidentally, music as an accompaniment to the march and a way to communicate and rouse the troops to action have been part and parcel of winning and executing battle. Music triggered social change in the 1960s.

I think much the same is probably true of religion.  My own position is that the shamanic/primal form of religious belief bubbles up out of our cognitive architecture as a side effect of other processes. But this byproduct can be co-opted by cultural evolutionary selection, and reshaped into something with functional utility.

Why Darwinian metaphors work for start-ups

Peter Thiel is a deep thinker. I say that because some of my friends in the Bay Area whom I respect for being punctilious practitioners of cognitive hygiene nevertheless exhibit awe in relation to their conversations with him (for what it’s worth, most do not agree with his politics). Though Thiel has the standard educational qualifications and cognitive abilities of America’s ruling class, I think the key aspect is that people perceive in him a deep cunning which is very unnerving. This cunning is why he is a successful entrepreneur, and not an affluent lawyer on staff at a major tech firm.

Zero To One has many insights for the typical reader, though perhaps less so for those steeped in economic history, endogenous growth theory, or evolutionary biology. The novelty is in a situation of scientific ways of viewing in the world in the business and tech landscape of Silicon Valley.

But one way of talking that Thiel expresses skepticism of is the “Darwinian” language of competition employed by many people in business. I think here he misses the mark because he conceives of Darwinian processes in purely biological terms. As it is, a lot of the ideas in the field of cultural evolution, which models inter-group human dynamics, dovetails with recommendations in Zero To One.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of asabiyyah in the likelihood of the long-term success of a firm. But anyone who has worked at a start-up knows this intuitively. Financial alignment of interests are necessary, but not sufficient. Culture matters.

Pick the right team, not the right answer (most of the time)

Often you will hear people say “why do people always engage in ‘group-think'”? As if group-think is always a bad thing! The reality is that group-think is often highly adaptive. That’s why people engage in it. You’re outsourcing expensive cognition to the collective, tradition, or in some cases to someone with expertise.

Of course, there are whole domains of heuristics and biases that developed out of exposing how humans do not reason appropriately, but other researchers have argued that our species’ irrationality is often quite useful in our ancestral evolutionary environment. In other words, a lot of what frustrates is us not a bug, but a feature.

For example, in an ancient pre-modern environment where culture and environment were generally stable reasoning to everything basically consists of reinventing the wheel constantly. The contemplative life may have been the starving life. The “way things have been done” may not always seem perfectly optimal, but they were sufficient.

To give an empirical example of this that I’ve always found sad, the Irish were exceptional among European peasants peoples in taking to a potato monoculture without must hesitation. Believe it or not the Russians were tardy at adoption. This resulted in a massive demographic expansion which saw Ireland’s population peak at around 8,000,000. But the cost of this was the Great Famine, which illustrated how the wholesale adoption of practices which were optimal in the short-term were not optimal evaluated over the long-term (Ireland’s population today is less than 5,000,000, though some of this is due to the culture of emigration which emerged during the Great Famine). Evolution is evaluated over the long-term, so universal cognitive ticks which we see across our species are probably there for a reason, whether as a direct cause, or a side-effect.

Finally, intellectuals who enjoin the masses to not engage in group-think have no difficulty in falling into the same practices when operating outside their own domains of expertise. What this suggests is that “critical-rationalism” is not something that emerges in a vacuum. Rather, it is a cognitive method that develops in a particular cultural context, and individually is often the outcome of confidence and experience gained through years of education and mental practice within a narrow topic.

Getting yourself out of the cave and not misinterpreting the shadows can be hard. And truthfully, it probably wasn’t even optimal. The roaches will inherit the earth long after we’re gone, and they likely never even reflect upon their own selfhood.

Why our society might go “splat!” on the windshield sooner than we think

Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the fact that humans are bad at modeling exponential rates of growth. In this case, he’s talking about the rate of change in information technology. Whatever you think about Ray’s general ideas as outlined in books such as The Singularity Is Near, I think it’s a pretty good insight that needs reiteration.

More generally in social processes, I think humans living at any given time are not very cognizant of nonlinearities, and the sorts of exogenous shocks that might happen in their lifetimes. And why would we be? The evolutionary psychological model for why we’re bad at conceptualizing rapid change is that until recently not much changed for most people at most times.

That is, humans were animals which lived near the Malthusian limit at a stationary state. The rate of change did increase during the Holocene, but even with ancient Egypt consider how different the life of a peasant in the Old Kingdom was versus the New Kingdom. Over 2,000 years not much had changed. Even at the elite levels, not much had changed (in fact, the Egyptian religion maintained cultural continuity from ~3000 BC to ~500 AD, with the shutdown of the temple at Philae). Now consider the 2,000 years between ancient Rome and the modern West. Or, consider the 300 years between the Augustan Age and revival of the Empire under the Tetrarchy, and contrast that to the present year and 1717.

The modern world is strange because great changes in technology and social values can occur over and over across a single lifetime. Someone born in 1896 would mature and develop a world-view conditioned by the “long 19th century,” which lasted until 1914. Then they’d experience the “shock” of the “War to End All Wars.”

Arguably the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 was marked by evolution, rather than revolution, in social and political structures. 1848 did not prefigure a tumult equivalent to the French Revolution or the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Italy and Germany were unified ultimately under conservative nationalists. Darwinism, abolitionism, and women’s rights arguably were movements who were seeded during the Enlightenment and exhibited long pregnancies until the point that they erupted to prominence.

Between 1914 and 1920 a whole world fell away. The Empire of the Tsars collapsed, and was replaced by the chiliastic Bolshevik regime. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were dismembered and their monarchies were overthrown, while Germany transformed from a conservative monarchy to a liberal republic.

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In 2546 Richard Dawkins will be remembered for “memes”

In 2006 South Park premiered the episode Go God Go. It synthesized Buck Rogers in the 25th century, the Wii craze of the middle 2000s, and Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion engendered fame (or infamy). In some ways, this was a sad reflection on Dawkins’ reputation, because before he got full-bore into atheist activism he was a great science popularizer, most famously for The Selfish Gene. Many would contend that George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection outlined The Selfish Gene‘s ideas better and earlier, while Dawkins himself is most proud of The Extended Phenotype. But warranted or not The Selfish Gene stands head and shoulders above his other work in terms of recognition, in large part due to the sexy title (which Dawkins has expressed some ambivalence about due to its misinterpretation).

When God God Go premiered it was plausible, as the episode suggested, that ~500 years into the future Dawkins would be remembered as the prophet of irreligion. But times change. I now believe that Richard Dawkins’ reputation will hinge on the word and concept of the meme. That is because Dawkins introduced the idea in The Selfish Gene in 1976. Despite Susan Blackmore’s attempt to revive interest in the concept in The Meme Machine I think it is fair to say that “memetics” as an analog to “genetics” was moribund for several decades. This is not to say that cultural evolution as a field did not exist, but that discipline is distinct from memetics and emerged around the same time as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

Today we are in a very different position than 2006. The word “meme” has entered the lexicon. As the Google Trends chart above shows the increase began in the late 2000s, but it is has been rather precipitous of the last decade. Among the younger set, the word meme is not exotic. It’s just another word. In fact, I mentioned offhand to a co-worker that Richard Dawkins invented the neologism and he was incredulous. He simply couldn’t believe it. And that to me illustrates how ubiquitous it’s gotten in a bizarre way. Dawkins is seen as a writer on evolution and religion. Not the originator of such a ubiquitous word.

Of course, memetics and memes as Dawkins originally envisaged them never developed in the way he’d have imagined. But the culture has a knack for evolving in directions we wouldn’t expect….