Rice culture reduces individualism


The above map comes from a 2014 paper, Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. From the abstract:

Cross-cultural psychologists have mostly contrasted East Asia with the West. However, this study shows that there are major psychological differences within China. We propose that a history of farming rice makes cultures more interdependent, whereas farming wheat makes cultures more independent, and these agricultural legacies continue to affect people in the modern world. We tested 1162 Han Chinese participants in six sites and found that rice-growing southern China is more interdependent and holistic-thinking than the wheat-growing north. To control for confounds like climate, we tested people from neighboring counties along the rice-wheat border and found differences that were just as large. We also find that modernization and pathogen prevalence theories do not fit the data.

Basically, rice has a higher per unit yield than wheat, but requires a lot more coordinated labor input. To grow paddy rice it takes a village.

This insight was not surprising to me, and introduced in David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. In this book Wilson argued for a rehabilitation of the tradition of evolutionary functionalism in the social sciences. Basically, viewing human societies as adaptive functional units. One of his examples to illustrate the necessity of examining group-level function was wet-rice paddy agriculture in Bali, which was only feasible through coordination and collective action between interdependent farms.

The 2014 results made total sense to me in light of what little I knew. Southern Chinese are stereotypically more patriarchal and clannish than Northern Chinese. My inference here being that the collectivist nature of rice agriculture meant that paternal clan units of social organization were more important in the South than the North.

I haven’t followed up on this work at all in all these years. Then I saw this on my Twitter feed: Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County.

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Learning from cultural anthropology as opposed to unlearning from cultural anthropology

On my other weblog one of the commenters, who I have nicknamed Syme (others call him Bentwig), proudly boasts about his training anthropology. Those who know me personally are aware that for me this is often a red flag for an individual who is willing to furiously declare that up is down if Edward Said stated that this was so in a footnote somewhere, or that black is the palest color if Michel Foucault averred this offhand in an interview. I exaggerate in the generality, though in the case of Syme/Bentwig there is a common tendency to proudly attempt to forestall arguments with comments of the form “Edward Said said….” or “According to Foucault.”

Of course, arguing from the authority of others isn’t always bad…but with far too many people with undergraduate anthropology backgrounds seem to engage in this sort of argument-by-citation and refutation-by-declaration-of-theory. Perhaps a contrast of interest are people educated in philosophy. There’s not much they know in thick detail, but they often exhibit analytic acuity when presented with startling and novel information. In contrast, many people with anthropological training may express befuddlement and then proceed to fury when confronted with facts which are outside of their domain and foreknowledge.

Enough punching down. Alex Mesoudi, a scholar in the field of cultural evolution, is publishing book chapters as preprints. The author of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences, Mesoudi’s first submission, The study of culture and evolution across disciplines, should be read by anyone who is interested in the material on this weblog.

Mesoudi reviews the history of the field, from the rise and fall of human sociobiology in the 1970s to the birth of evolutionary psychology in the 1980s, and the gradual but consistent waxing of lesser-known disciplines such as cognitive anthropology and human behavioral ecology (out of which comes cultural evolution). A consistent binding feature of these disciplines is that they attempt to understand human cultural expression as a function of naturalistic processes, in particular, evolutionary ones. This is in contrast to the shift away from analysis to interpretation and description in much of cultural anthropology across the same time period, with the ultimate secession of much of the field from “science.” If you want to read a good primer on the division between scientific and non-scientific anthropology, I recommend Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture or the anthropological introduction to D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness. Scott Atran also tackles the issue in In Gods We Trust. The reason this is necessary is that to understand and take in cognitive anthropology, you often need to unlearn or dampened tics obligate in cultural anthropology.

The flight of much of American cultural anthropology from crisp and powerful analytic frameworks, and toward linguistic obscurantism, to me explains the relative poverty of cognition of those students with only an undergraduate training. Without field-work and graduate courses and reading there’s not even the ability to obtain the deep knowledge required to enable feats of “thick description.”

In any case, the genius of the tradition in which Mesoudi operates under is that it allows for powerful analysis and prediction of cultural patterns and dynamics. Using similar formal frameworks, the idea is to do to culture what population genetics has done to biological evolution: produce a machine to generate predictions and test them with empirical data.

Here’s a taste of how researchers in this field think of “cultural patterns”:

Boyd and Richerson (1985) developed models showing that transmitted culture is favored when environments change moderately quickly, too fast for genes to track, but not so fast that the culturally transmitted behavior is out of date (see also Aoki et al., 2005). Transmitted culture also evolves when individual learning is costly (Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Under such conditions, however, social learning evolves but does not increase the average fitness of the population. This phenomenon became known as “Rogers’ paradox” after Alan Rogers, the first person to clearly point it out (Rogers, 1988). The fact that social learning does not enhance average population fitness is not inherently paradoxical, but does contradict the common claim that humans are so ecologically and demographically successful because of transmitted culture.

Rogers’ paradox occurs because the success of social learning is frequency-dependent. When rare, social learners do well because they forego the costs borne by individual learners. But when common, and environments change, social learners will be copying other social learners’ out-dated information. At equilibrium, social and individual learners have equal fitness, which will be equal to the fitness of a population entirely composed of individual learners (which is fixed, because their learning is not dependent on others). Thus, social learning evolves, but does not enhance fitness in a way that could be described as the ‘secret to our success’.

Two small quibbles with the chapter. First:

Bouckaert et al. (2012) reconstructed the cultural evolutionary history of the Indo-European language family, finding that it originally spread along with farming practices from present-day Turkey around 8,000 years ago.

Bouckaert et al. used valid phylogenetic methods, but it seems quite clear that these models have difficulty predicting the protean and punctuated character of many population expansions, which reshape the distribution and relationship of languages. Since 2012 a substantial amount of ancient DNA work has strongly pointed to the likelihood that the distribution of extant Indo-European languages in Europe is due to an expansion out of the Pontic steppe 5,000 years ago (with later secondary migrations into Southern Europe after 4,000 years ago). Though the Anatolian origin may still be preserved if one argues that the Pontic expansion was a secondary one, clearly most of the diversification of the Indo-European languages occurred in the period between 3000 and 1000 BC, in a 2,000-year radiation. The “Indo-European question” ultimately showed to me the limitations of phylogenetic methods because they are sensitive to particular assumptions within the model (e.g., continuous endogenous demographic expansion).

Second:

Note that this is different to Wilson’s (1976) earlier speculations that genetic differences might explain behavioral differences between groups of people. Tooby and Cosmides explicitly disavowed this, instead arguing that people everywhere are genetically far too similar to explain any behavioral variation directly (which concurs with modern genetic data: Feldman, 2014). Genes instead generate a set of universal responses to predictable environmental variation.

Considering the very rapid changes in cultural types across time and between closely related lineages, it seems hard to credit that most behaviorally based cultural variation is due to genetic variation (e.g., walk down a street in Finland and walk down a street in Italy, and see how differently the comportment of the typical passerby is). But, it seems quite possible, probably likely, that there are going to be some behavioral differences due to different distributions in polygenic quantitative traits. The question is more the extent of magnitude. That will depend on the phenotype and between population pair.

Also, there is clearly variation within the cultural evolution community on this issue. I know this from personal communication. Joe Henrich admits the possibility in The Secret of Our Success, without taking a position.

But, with those quibbles out of the way, go and read The study of culture and evolution across disciplines. I think it’s great that Mesoudi is putting out preprints for his book chapters. Makes his research accessible, and this is one field where more publicity would be good (shout out to Paul Smaldino, who apparently inspired Mesoudi on this track).

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….