Thursday, January 21, 2010

What era are our intuitions about elites and business adapted to?   posted by agnostic @ 1/21/2010 01:36:00 AM

Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don't even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don't have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do -- these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.

So that leaves two major eras -- agricultural and industrial societies. I'm going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order -- hunter-gatherer life -- there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders -- or "natural states" that sprung up with agriculture -- substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen -- who all make up a dominant coalition -- that I'll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.

This way, the strongman doesn't have to work very much to live a comfortable life -- just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won't one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone's land gets ravaged, everyone's peasants can't produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).

The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people's ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn't going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn't those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition -- only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.

It's not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power -- maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren't going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents -- they're going to raid him and take enough so that he's left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won't be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.

Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy -- it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell -- it's a mercantile elite -- rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations -- as opposed to not having the freedom to do so -- that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.

OK, now let's take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits -- that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people's mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.

First, the view that capturing more of the audience -- whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you -- matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs -- boosting profits -- remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they've got them locked in, make money off of them somehow -- by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.

Of course, that hasn't gone away since then, as everyone says that "providers of online content" can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don't think most people believe that charging a subset for "premium content" is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon's reaction to the NYT's official statement that they're going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:

Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven't made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they're incredibly profitable -- and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as "go after audiences" -- they must do that in a way that's profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could "watch revenues follow" by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.

The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn't matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.

Clearly that doesn't work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what -- there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT's ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.

Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence -- not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won't be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It's mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.

Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways -- higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it -- bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!

That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn't want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That's correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there's nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.

The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late '70s and early '80s but couldn't adapt to changing tastes -- and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn't adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-'90s and early 2000s -- and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by -- Nintendo! It doesn't even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-'80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.

But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before -- same amount of food taken -- but now you're getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master's land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair -- he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you're entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.

You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out -- the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial -- but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion -- the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power -- is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.

By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.

But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn't see it -- the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats -- that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen -- we don't want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!

This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering -- hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness -- if we didn't subsidize them, they couldn't provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don't really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.

It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there's a decent trace of it in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli -- and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)

We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains -- we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven't had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I'm sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Blind men prefer thin-waisted women   posted by Razib @ 1/17/2010 11:17:00 AM

The waist-to-hip ratio research has been done to death, but an interesting twist, Blind men prefer a low waist-to-hip ratio:
Previous studies suggest that men in Western societies are attracted to low female waist-to-hip ratios (WHR). Several explanations of this preference rely on the importance of visual input for the development of the preference, including explanations stressing the role of visual media. We report evidence showing that congenitally blind men, without previous visual experience, exhibit a preference for low female WHRs when assessing female body shapes through touch, as do their sighted counterparts. This finding shows that a preference for low WHR can develop in the complete absence of visual input and, hence, that such input is not necessary for the preference to develop. However, the strength of the preference was greater for the sighted than the blind men, suggesting that visual input might play a role in reinforcing the preference. These results have implications for debates concerning the evolutionary and developmental origins of human mate preferences, in particular, regarding the role of visual media in shaping such preferences.

Full description of the research here.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Mating Mouth   posted by Razib @ 12/09/2009 02:12:00 AM

Gingival Transcriptome Patterns During Induction and Resolution of Experimental Gingivitis in Humans:
A relatively small subset (11.9%) of the immune response genes analyzed by array was transiently activated in response to biofilm overgrowth, suggesting a degree of specificity in the transcriptome-expression response. The fact that this same subset demonstrates a reversal in expression patterns during clinical resolution implicates these genes as being critical for maintaining tissue homeostasis at the biofilm–gingival interface. In addition to the immune response pathway as the dominant response theme, new candidate genes and pathways were identified as being selectively modulated in experimental gingivitis, including neural processes, epithelial defenses, angiogenesis, and wound healing.

ScienceDaily has a more awesome title, Nearly One Third of Human Genome Is Involved in Gingivitis, Study Shows:
Research conducted jointly by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Procter & Gamble (P&G) Oral Care has found that more than 9,000 genes -- nearly 30 percent of the genes found in the human body -- are expressed differently during the onset and healing process associated with gingivitis. Biological pathways associated with activation of the immune system were found to be the major pathways being activated and critical to controlling the body's reaction to plaque build-up on the teeth. Additionally, other gene expression pathways activated during plaque overgrowth include those involved in wound healing, neural processes and skin turnover.

Perhaps then bad breath and poor oral hygiene are simply a fitness indicator, and kissing evolved as a method for humans to evaluate each other's health as an "honest" signal?


Friday, November 13, 2009

Height doesn't always matter....   posted by Razib @ 11/13/2009 02:39:00 PM

How universal are human mate choices? Size doesn't matter when Hadza foragers are choosing a mate:
It has been argued that size matters on the human mate market: both stated preferences and mate choices have been found to be non-random with respect to height and weight. But how universal are these patterns? Most of the literature on human mating patterns is based on post-industrial societies. Much less is known about mating behaviour in more traditional societies. Here we investigate mate choice by analysing whether there is any evidence for non-random mating with respect to size and strength in a forager community, the Hadza of Tanzania. We test whether couples assort for height, weight, BMI, percent fat and grip strength. We test whether there is a male-taller norm. Finally, we test for an association between anthropometric variables and number of marriages. Our results show no evidence for assortative mating for height, weight, BMI or percent fat; no evidence for a male-taller norm; and no evidence that number of marriages is associated with our size variables. Hadza couples may assort positively for grip strength, but grip strength does not affect the number of marriages. Overall we conclude that, in contrast to post-industrial societies, mating appears to be random with respect to size in the Hadza.

Here's some stuff from the discussion:

Overall, however, our analysis suggests size and strength are not greatly important when Hadza are choosing a mate. This lack of size-related mating patterns might appear surprising, since size is usually assumed to be an indicator of health, productivity and overall quality. But health and productivity may be signalled in alternative ways in the Hadza, who are a small, relatively homogeneous population. An individual's health history may be more important than size, for example, and this may be relatively well known in a small, mobile population. Additionally, there may be some disadvantages to large size in food-limited societies, where the costs of maintaining large size during periods of food shortage may be high. Such disadvantages will not be seen in food abundant societies, so that large size may be a better indicator of quality in postindustrial populations. Finally, research on another African forager population found that height is negatively correlated with hunting returns (Lee 1979), suggesting that tall height may not be an indicator of productivity in such economies.

Here's a chart which shows the proportion of females-taller-than-male marriages by culture:

In a previous post I suggested that the shift from small-scale societies to agricultural societies witnessed a transition from an emphasis on innate individual level social intelligence toward rules and heuristics (in other words, wisdom embodied in the preferences of society and its institutions). External physical characteristics are correlated with "health," so they're useful. And those who are not physically attractive can signal their own status and abilities in other ways, ugly fat men can for example buy material signalers to show that they have something going on. It strikes me that the Wisdom of Seinfeld is most appropriate for large urban areas with some degree of anonymity. Quick & dirty signalers to filter and influence one's choices are critical in the incredibly large number of human interactions possible in these urban agglomerations. By contrast, if George Costanza lived in a village one would know enough about his persona to dismiss a random "pairing" with an attractive woman as an aberration (or, one would know the back-story to this bizarre pairing).

As our modern post-industrial society shifts toward information transparency perhaps we'll become less "shallow"? Remember the 1995 film Species, the attractive alien character met a handsome male at a night club. She assessed his fitness through his looks to make the initial choice. But later she killed him when she found that he was a diabetic. If she'd been able to access his health profile on her iPhone perhaps he would have been able to live for another day?

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

What's "natural" is heterogenous   posted by Razib @ 9/09/2009 09:43:00 PM

Seems to be the "take away" message from Bryan Caplan's post, Monogamy and Heterogeneity. Interestingly, I've run into nature-based arguments in regards to human behavior and norms (e.g., "it's the natural way" or "it's against nature") mostly from two sets, back-to-nature-hippies and social conservatives. As Caplan suggests there is a tendency in these cases for the two groups to generalize from their own likely innate preferences, though the defections and deviations from both groups over time suggest that there's a lot of heterogeneity within them and some people are just conforming to the ideologies and leaders of their packs. Humans are supposed to have good Theory of Mind, but I think even that is a little outmatched by the enormous sample space of possible choices available in a post-industrial consumer society living well above the margins of subsistence. Minor innate behavioral dispositions which might have been marginal or buffered in a small-scale society may snowball due to the unending positive feedback loops which can be generated by the diversity of choices we can make today.

The pre-modern polyamorist was likely constrained in the number of individuals they might have sexual relations with because the number of people in their social world was small. Similarly, there wasn't nearly as much temptation and opportunity (or perceived opportunity cost) for the pre-modern monogamist. The realized distribution of behavior may be much more stretched out in modern society than in the past. After all, how nerdy would most of the readers of this weblog be if they'd been peasants? How many ways are there to plant a seed? (I'm sure I'm going to get answers to that rhetorical question)

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Friday, September 04, 2009

She So Hot   posted by Razib @ 9/04/2009 07:14:00 PM

Interacting with women can impair men's cognitive functioning:
The present research tested the prediction that mixed-sex interactions may temporarily impair cognitive functioning. Two studies, in which participants interacted either with a same-sex or opposite-sex other, demonstrated that men's (but not women's) cognitive performance declined following a mixed-sex encounter. In line with our theoretical reasoning, this effect occurred more strongly to the extent that the opposite-sex other was perceived as more attractive (Study 1), and to the extent that participants reported higher levels of impression management motivation (Study 2). Implications for the general role of interpersonal processes in cognitive functioning, and some practical implications, are discussed.

Everything fits intuition, right?

H/T Sheril


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jerry Fodor, Charles Darwin and Natural Selection   posted by Razib @ 7/22/2009 11:10:00 AM

Over at ScienceBlog:
I would like to invite discussion on my paper, On Fodor on Darwin On Evolution, which is a critique of Jerry Fodor's Hugues Leblanc Lectures at UQAM on "What Darwin Got Wrong"....

Jerry Fodor argues that Darwin was wrong about "natural selection" because (1) it is only a tautology rather than a scientific law that can support counterfactuals ("If X had happened, Y would have happened") and because (2) only minds can select. Hence Darwin's analogy with "artificial selection" by animal breeders was misleading and evolutionary explanation is nothing but post-hoc historical narrative. I argue that Darwin was right on all counts. Until Darwin's "tautology," it had been believed that either (a) God had created all organisms as they are, or (b) organisms had always been as they are. Darwin revealed instead that (c) organisms have heritable traits that evolved across time through random variation, with survival and reproduction in (changing) environments determining (mindlessly) which variants were successfully transmitted to the next generation. This not only provided the (true) alternative (c), but also the methodology for investigating which traits had been adaptive, how and why; it also led to the discovery of the genetic mechanism of the encoding, variation and evolution of heritable traits....

No comments on the post yet, so GNXP readers should check out the paper.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sex ratio and behavior   posted by Razib @ 6/10/2009 12:10:00 PM

When Young Men Are Scarce, They're More Likely To Play The Field Than To Propose:
In places where young women outnumber young men, research shows the hemlines rise but the marriage rates don't because the young men feel less pressure to settle down as more women compete for their affections.

But when those men reach their 30s, the reverse is true and proportionately more older men are married in areas where women outnumber men.

The original paper is here.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Keeping your head   posted by Razib @ 5/13/2009 02:22:00 AM

Life histories, blood revenge, and reproductive success among the Waorani of Ecuador:
The Waorani may have the highest rate of homicide of any society known to anthropology. We interviewed 121 Waorani elders of both sexes to obtain genealogical information and recollections of raids in which they and their relatives participated. We also obtained complete raiding histories of 95 warriors. An analysis of the raiding histories, marital trajectories, and reproductive histories of these men reveals that more aggressive warriors have lower indices of reproductive success than their milder brethren. This result contrasts the findings of Chagnon...for the Yanomamo. We suggest that the spacing of revenge raids may be involved in the explanation of why the consequences of aggressiveness differ between these 2 warlike lowland South American peoples.

Perhaps these data are wrong somehow. That being said, I think the "psychic unity of mankind" and an attempt to shoehorn everything into cultural universals led anthropologists, whatever their ideological preferences (or lack thereof) to over generalize about the ubiquity of one optimal reproductive strategy. The data from human ethology about fitness on "small scale societies" can be confusing, it is clear in many cases that the researchers were looking for a particular finding but couldn't validate their expectations.

Rather than one model to rule them all it seems likely that a species with such a complex social system as ours does have various niches in which different morphs can optimize their fitness. Greg Clark implicitly assumes this in Farewell to Alms. The martial blood nobility had lower fitness than the relatively pacific gentry up until about 1800 in England because they were killed in war so often. But these patterns also vary over time, Peter Turchin has data sets from Europe which show wild swings in fitness of these martial elites over the past 1,000 years in Europe. When times were good, they were really good (e.g., the Victorian era when the nobility became breeders of the first order), and when they were bad they were really bad (e.g., the War of the Roses when the English nobility "thinned" itself out through conflict).

More crassly one has to ask oneself if history is a story of the ascent of the alpha what exactly are the pussies doing hanging around so thick on ground? In a Cartesian manner the very existence of these multitudes refutes the single strategy model.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolving to become more miserable?   posted by agnostic @ 3/31/2009 01:59:00 AM

In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark provides data on interest rates to show that Europeans gradually developed lower time preferences. In other words, they were more likely to delay gratification and plan for the future -- paying back loans, for example. He also interprets data on wills as showing that most people of English descent today are the genetic legacy of the middle class, the poor and the aristocracy mostly having failed to reproduce themselves. That leaves us with a society where the average person maximizes their long-term material welfare much better than their counterparts would have in the Middle Ages or before. There appears to be somewhat of a drawback, though: doing so makes you more miserable over the long term.

John Tierney recently reviewed
a series of studies on how the intensity of guilt and regret change over time. Read the most recent article for free here, which contains five related studies. The journal article and Tierney's write-up are brief and straightforward, so I own't belabor the details here. Basically, in the short term, indulgence-driven guilt stings more than prudence-driven regret, and this motivates us toward virtuous behavior, such as delaying material gratification. In the long term, though, guilt has faded away and regret over missing out on life's pleasures weighs more heavily on our mind.

Oddly, then, maximizing long-term material well-being minimizes long-term hedonic well-being. If the big shift to low time preferences was as recent as Clark suggests -- during the Modern and especially Industrial period -- then perhaps our brain's pleasure or reward system hasn't had enough time to rewire itself to make us feel warm and fuzzy about having saved, abstained, and done the prudent thing in the past. Rather, since all other human groups before the big change, and certainly other primate groups, had very high time preferences, the reward system is probably designed to make us feel happy as we pour over a mental photo album that's stuffed with memories of irresponsible fun and indulgence.

Hey, no one ever said that changing the world and getting shit done was going to be emotionally uplifting.

I'd like to see follow-up studies focus on individual differences in how strongly they are motivated by guilt vs. regret. Most personality questionnaires measure something called excitement seeking or novelty seeking, as well as impulsiveness. We might predict that impulsive and excitement-seeking people are more motivated by avoiding regret than avoiding guilt, which leads them toward indulging more in the present. You could re-do all of the five studies in the article above, but using personality traits as predictor variables. If different parts of the brain light up when we feel guilt vs. regret, you could see if impulsive and excitement-seeking people showed greater responses to regret-based scenarios than guilt-based scenarios. (E.g., they read a story about someone else feeling these emotions, they reflect on an episode from their own lives, they see pictures of the faces of others expressing these emotions, and so on.)

On an applied level, if you suffer from "hyperopia" -- planning to much for your material future -- you can push yourself to indulge merely by reflecting on how you may in 20 years regret missing out on having fun now. If you remind yourself that "You'll regret it if you don't," then you won't find yourself sighing later on about that more exciting trip you should have taken your son on, that year of working in a more fulfilling city for less pay, or that student who made a pass at you that you should have slept with.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Finnish Type A personalities have more offspring   posted by Razib @ 3/26/2009 03:45:00 PM

Adolescent Leadership and Adulthood Fertility: Revisiting the "Central Theoretical Problem of Human Sociobiology":
Human motivation for social status may reflect an evolved psychological adaptation that increased individual reproductive success in the evolutionary past. However, the association between status striving and reproduction in contemporary humans is unclear. It may be hypothesized that personality traits related to status achievement increase fertility even if modern indicators of socioeconomic status do not. We examined whether four subcomponents of type-A personality-leadership, hard-driving, eagerness, and aggressiveness—assessed at the age of 12 to 21 years predicted the likelihood of having children by the age of 39 in a population-based sample of Finnish women and men (N=1,313). Survival analyses indicated that high adolescent leadership increased adulthood fertility in men and women, independently of education level and urbanicity of residence. The findings suggest that personality determinants of status achievement may predict increased reproductive success in contemporary humans.

In Finland a "Type-A Personality" presumably refers to someone willing to make eye contact with family members. In any case I think this table is probably the most informative:

The main caveat which is stated in the paper is that we're talking about Finland today. How generalizable is this? If leadership was a primary factor behind reproductive success over long periods of time how come we're not all Type A personalities? I think it seems likely that the fitness of these individuals and their morph exhibits frequency dependence. Additionally the longer term volatility of this strategy probably differs from more retiring personal profiles. The Type A strategy seems more likely to be subject to winner-take-all dynamics; there were many prominent leaders on the Mongolian plain of 1250. Very few of them have descendants due to the fact that one Type A eliminated all the rest. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark reports data which illustrate that before the 19th century the blooded military nobility might have had below average replacement because of morality during war. In contrast, the gentry were fertile. Not to nerd out, but this shows that the Hobbit strategy can beat the Numenorean over the long term. Modern post-industrial societies have a particular social ecology, and are subject to a dynamic contingent upon that ecology. Let's not overgeneralize.

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

What men & women what   posted by Razib @ 2/07/2009 12:17:00 AM

FuturePundit has a post, Mate Preference Trends:
Strip away tradition. Strip away religious beliefs. What happens? Men and women are looking at each other in ways that seem even more influenced by their evolutionary heritage. The mating market looks like it is becoming more competitive.

He goes on to observe that men are becoming more interested in a potential mate's earning power, and far less in chastity (I do think that there's also a supply issue here shifting the rank order of preferences, if you know what I mean). Women, like men, now prioritize romantic love. What's going on?

If we take these data at face value I think that in some ways evolutionary psychology is becoming more, not less, salient in terms of our life choices. In many "traditional" societies mate choice is highly constrained by the preferences & interests of individuals who are not the principals. Though this is certainly operative in many hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., the bizarre incest taboos among some Australian Aboriginals), I suspect that freedom of choice is more constricted among sedentary agricultural populations because it is in this group that institutionally derived norms loom the largest. As humans subsisted on the Malthusian margins in such relatively complex societies there was little "wiggle" room for lifestyle experimentation. Interestingly, many Blank Slate theorists who advocate lifestyle experimentation presume that an ideological revolution was necessary for an exploration of the behavior space, but perhaps deviation was always latent, and only constrained by cultural norms.

In any case, traditional norms did not reshape the human mind in terms of basal preferences. This is evident in the oral and literary production of traditional societies themselves. The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne has analogs in most cultures. Even if traditional norms frown upon the lack of restraint which is evident through the actions of tragic lovers, it is clear that the stories evoke empathy in the modal human, even the most hard-hearted.

From a functional perspective using the criterion of romantic love as the primary factor in pairbonds in traditional societies might have been impractical. Not so today, as our consumer society has the minimum floor of subsistence taken care of. Of course the long term utility of putting such a great emphasis on romantic love, as opposed to a more balanced suite of matching parameters, may be a different beast altogether from proximate psychic satisfaction.

Note: As I suggest above relaxing the constraint of traditional norms may result in a dispersion or diversification of behavior as individuals gravitate toward their own preferred strategy due to individual differences. Many individuals for example today have no interest in reproducing, or entering into a pairbond with one other person. Some traditional cultures ostracize their sort of behavior, or marginalize them to a specialized caste or phase in life history. But perhaps heritable behavioral variation always existed, only to be dampened by the norms associated with traditional culture?

Related: Forward into the past.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Evolution and trustworthiness   posted by Razib @ 10/29/2008 11:20:00 PM

Evolution of trust and trustworthiness: social awareness favours personality differences (Open Access):
Interest in the evolution and maintenance of personality is burgeoning. Individuals of diverse animal species differ in their aggressiveness, fearfulness, sociability and activity. Strong trade-offs, mutation-selection balance, spatio-temporal fluctuations in selection, frequency dependence and good-genes mate choice are invoked to explain heritable personality variation, yet for continuous behavioural traits, it remains unclear which selective force is likely to maintain distinct polymorphisms. Using a model of trust and cooperation, we show how allowing individuals to monitor each other's cooperative tendencies, at a cost, can select for heritable polymorphisms in trustworthiness. This variation, in turn, favours costly 'social awareness' in some individuals. Feedback of this sort can explain the individual differences in trust and trustworthiness so often documented by economists in experimental public goods games across a range of cultures. Our work adds to growing evidence that evolutionary game theorists can no longer afford to ignore the importance of real world inter-individual variation in their models.

The fact that evolutionary psychology traditionally focuses on universal traits which are genetically fixed while behavior genetics is preconditioned on heritable variation of similar traitshas been a distinction which has been brought to light by skeptics of any biological component to human behavior. In The Undiscovered Mind John Horgan attempted to throw cold water on the rise of neuro and cognitive sciences precisely using this sort of tactic. Though I think many critics of evolutionary psychology argue in bad faith, at the end of the day some of their criticisms land on target because of the huge sample space of laugh-out-loud "theorizing" by scholars fixated on an outmoded paradigm.

Humans are not the same. We vary. And we vary in part because of heritable biological factors. Some evolutionary psychologists, Satoshi Kanazawa comes to mind, work under an old model where deviations from their expectation of human modal behavior is treated simply as trivial holdovers along the transient from the ancestral to the derived phenotype, or noise introduced by environmental factors. Because of he elegant simplicity of their model evolutionary psychologists of this school are expert verbal showmen.

Certainly there are plenty of human universals. But there are plenty of non-universals. We are familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis in relation to our immune systems. This model arose in large part because of the necessity for constant evolution in the forever war with parasites. If humans are a cultural animal par excellence for whom the flexibility of their behavioral toolkit is essential, should it surprise us if frequency dependent evolutionary dynamics result in a large number of morphs constantly cycling? Perhaps H. sapiens is the environment of evolutionary adaptedness of H. sapiens?

Related: Heritability of the Ultimatum Game, Altruism and Risk-Taking: Kinda Heritable and Variation as the ultimate.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Why some material is unmentionable   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2008 07:18:00 PM

Slate has some very interesting excerpts from The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters posted today. The reality that a great deal of the illness in today's world is caused by fecal contamination is well known. The proximate cause of many minor illnesses is mild food poisoning, but food poisoning itself is ultimately generally caused by poor hygiene.  It seems straightforward to imagine that poor sanitation can be a significant drain on economic productivity. But on this weblog we've also addressed the possibility of pathogens playing a role in changing personalities and temperaments. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark made the case that the greater mortality due to poor hygiene shifted the death schedule and so relieved Malthusian pressure. In contrast, East Asia was notable for having a rather efficient system of human waste disposal and reuse, and the concomitant lower death rate resulted in more Malthusian pressures and lower per capita wealth. One of the positive developments in the historical disciplines has been the a shift away from narrative annals describing political and social happenings on the elite level, to a more thorough quantitative analysis of the state of mass culture and material condition. Both perspectives are important; in War and Peace and War Peter Turchin reports military historical research which suggests that the presence of Napoleon at a battle was the equivalent of the French having 30% more troops! This suggests that to some extent Great Men do matter, but one must remember that the emergence of parvenu such as Napoleon was conditioned upon the Malthusian economic and social stresses of late 18th century France.

But the Slate piece also puts the spotlight on the particular nature of human psychology and its relation to feces:

Reuse works better when it involves camouflage. This technique is used, appropriately for a militarized country, in Israel. During a presentation at a London wastewater conference, a beautiful woman from Israel's Mekorot wastewater treatment utility, who stood out in a room full of gray suits, explained that they fed the effluent into an aquifer, withdrew it, then used it as potable water. "It is psychologically very important," she told the rapt audience, "for people to know that the water is coming from the aquifer." This is a clever way of getting around fecal aversion. Not having wastewater-and not wasting water-would be better still.

I'm sure this is not surprising to most readers, especially if you have read something like Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby. One can posit pretty straightforward adaptive reasons for why humans tend to have an aversion to feces and rot; but whatever the ultimate root of these instincts they're pretty universal. Of course, like eating spicy peppers humans seem able to get around these hardwired instincts, or leverage them in some way so as to invert their effect. For example, the application of feces upon wounds had a long history in pre-modern medicine, all the way back to the Egyptians. The detailed inferences can sometimes be surprising, but the point is that though most humans reflectively accept the atomic and molecular understanding of the world, reflexively they are Aristotelians. Intuitions can be overcome or unlearned to a great extent, but if one wishes to reform the human outlook one needs to take into account its a priori biases. The human mind is not amorphous clay which one can mold into any shape in an infinite manner of ways, rather, it is a collection of blocks and units which likely have innumerable combinatorial possibilities, but certainly a finite number subject to various constraints and conditions.

The cultural variation in attitudes which is overlain on human universals illustrates the reality that despite innate tendencies human minds are elastic. Consider:
Sanitation professionals sometimes divide the world into fecal-phobic and fecal-philiac cultures. India is the former (though only when the dung is not from cows); China is definitely and blithely the latter. Nor is the place of excrement confined to the fields. It has featured prominently in Chinese public life and literature for at least a thousand years.

The recycling of "night soil" mentioned in the Slate piece was also highly developed in Tokugawa Japan. Not only did the practice increase crop yields so that a large population was feasible with pre-modern agricultural techniques, but it had a byproduct effect of fostering public hygiene and reducing the disease burden (noted above). As far as the Chinese go, the attitude toward utilization of human waste, as well as other cultural traits such as minimal food taboos, illustrate the deep strain of pragmatic rationalism which many early or proto-Enlightenment philosophers so admired. As for the South Asia tendency to extend and elaborate on human intuitions and tendencies as opposed to channeling toward material ends, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all....

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Can someone put the psychic unity of makind out of its misery?   posted by Razib @ 10/06/2008 07:14:00 PM

Evolutionary emergence of responsive and unresponsive personalities:
In many animal species, individuals differ consistently in suites of correlated behaviors, comparable with human personalities. Increasing evidence suggests that one of the fundamental factors structuring personality differences is the responsiveness of individuals to environmental stimuli. Whereas some individuals tend to be highly responsive to such stimuli, others are unresponsive and show routine-like behaviors. Much research has focused on the proximate causes of these differences but little is known about their evolutionary origin. Here, we provide an evolutionary explanation. We develop a simple but general evolutionary model that is based on two key ingredients. First, the benefits of responsiveness are frequency-dependent; that is, being responsive is advantageous when rare but disadvantageous when common. This explains why responsive and unresponsive individuals can coexist within a population. Second, positive-feedback mechanisms reduce the costs of responsiveness; that is, responsiveness is less costly for individuals that have been responsive before. This explains why individuals differ consistently in their responsiveness, across contexts and over time. As a result, natural selection gives rise to stable individual differences in responsiveness. Whereas some individuals respond to environmental stimuli in all kinds of contexts, others consistently neglect such stimuli. Interestingly, such differences induce correlations among all kinds of other traits (e.g., boldness and aggressiveness), thus providing an explanation for environment-specific behavioral syndromes.

Related: Heritability of the Ultimatum Game, Chimps, the ultimatum game & time preference and Altruism and Risk-Taking: Kinda Heritable.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Russian dudes are imperialists   posted by Razib @ 10/01/2008 05:23:00 AM

Dynamics of Alliance Formation and the Egalitarian Revolution:

Arguably the most influential force in human history is the formation of social coalitions and alliances (i.e., long-lasting coalitions) and their impact on individual power. Understanding the dynamics of alliance formation and its consequences for biological, social, and cultural evolution is a formidable theoretical challenge. In most great ape species, coalitions occur at individual and group levels and among both kin and non-kin. Nonetheless, ape societies remain essentially hierarchical, and coalitions rarely weaken social inequality. In contrast, human hunter-gatherers show a remarkable tendency to egalitarianism, and human coalitions and alliances occur not only among individuals and groups, but also among groups of groups. These observations suggest that the evolutionary dynamics of human coalitions can only be understood in the context of social networks and cognitive evolution.

Their conclusion:

We propose a simple and flexible theoretical approach for studying the dynamics of alliance emergence applicable where game-theoretic methods are not practical. Our approach is both scalable and expandable. It is scalable in that it can be generalized to larger groups, or groups of groups. It is expandable in that it allows for inclusion of additional factors such as behavioral, genetic, social, and cultural features. Our results suggest that a rapid transition from a hierarchical society of great apes to an egalitarian society of hunter-gatherers (often referred to as “egalitarian revolution”) could indeed follow an increase in human cognitive abilities. The establishment of stable group-wide egalitarian alliances creates conditions promoting the origin of cultural norms favoring the group interests over those of individuals.

The title is a joke because the lead author is Sergey Gavrilets, who is a product of Moscow State University in the 1970s, just like Peter Turchin. And like Turchin Gavrilets is all over the place trying to produce formal models to elucidate a range of diverse questions. Gavrilets' research interests are social and cultural evolution, speciation and adaptive radiation, sexual conflict, holey fitness landscapes (this is how I knew him originally) and microevolutionary processes and macroevolutionary patterns. Good luck with all that, as they say....


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

↑testosterone ∝ ↑sexual interest ∝ ↑sex typical faces?   posted by Razib @ 9/16/2008 09:09:00 PM

Attraction 'down to testosterone':
Dr Ben Jones, a psychology lecturer, said: "People preferred different types of face in the session where their testosterone level was highest than in the session where it was lowest.

"When men's testosterone levels were high, they were more attracted to feminine women. When women's testosterone levels were high, they were more attracted to masculine men.

"Since masculine men and feminine women are thought to produce the healthiest children and sex drive is higher when testosterone levels are also high, these findings suggest that men and women in hormonal states where their interest in sex is highest, show stronger attraction to high quality - or healthy - mates."

They used a survey. Is there any way that fMRI would add more value or precision? This hasn't been published yet, but since it's about hotitude of course it will get a lot of play. Since I don't know how strong the effect was from this report I'll hold off on the judging the evolutionary explanation. But I wonder if the constant stream of these sorts of evolutionary psychology results are a function of the British press, or is evolutionary psychology just really popular on that side of the pond?

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Books of Interest   posted by birch barlow @ 7/09/2008 06:21:00 PM

Some sources/influences on my previous post, and my thinking in general, are listed below. I'm not recommending that everyone run off and buy all of these books, but they might pique your curiosity. Of course, to the extent one has time, it's always good to read and re-read the classic h-bd/evolutionary psychology writers such as Herrnstein & Murray, Sailer, Pinker, Dawkins, Dennet, and E.O. Wilson.

I consider all of these works, as those of Murray, Sailer, Pinker, Plomin et. al. to be good examples of what George Orwell called "the empirical habit of thought," which I believe is critical to understanding human diversity and defeating what Godless Capitalist termed the "Death Star 2.0" [see comments] version of PC. In fact, all the books below except (perhaps) for the textbook Multivariate Data Analysis make what are at least crypto pro-hbd statements. As an aside, one problem with crimethinking is that it tends to be decentralized and hard to find, much less to unite and make use of. Thus, I think it is useful to "think outside the box" in terms of finding pro h-bd works and thinkers.

Descartes' Error--Antonio Damasio

Spiritual Evolution--George Vaillant

The Wisdom of the Ego--George Vaillant

The Natural History of Alcoholism: Revisited--George Vaillant

What You Can Change and What you Can't--Martin E.P. Seligman

Multivariate Data Analysis--Hair et. al.

1984--George Orwell

Comment: O'Brien in 1984 spookily reminds me of Richard Lewontin and his disturbing capacity for doublethink and goodthinkfulness (i.e. willingness to swallow and propagate orthodoxy in the face of well-known facts, such as Lewontin's denying race and genetic influences on behavior in spite of his rather extensive knowledge of genetics and population genetics in particular). Lewontin strikes me as the kind of person who, if he were in power, would force people to be "re-educated" for speaking of the biological basis for human behavior, while unknown to the public, promoting the study of pharmacology, gene therapies, and genetic engineering as tools to increase his power and the power his pseudo-socialist State. In fact, the potential usefulness of biotechnology as a mind control tool is the one thing that makes me have some misgivings about it (though I am still very much in favor of the advancement of biotech).

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Religion: biology ↔ psychology ↔ sociology ↔ history   posted by Razib @ 3/30/2008 01:18:00 AM

On the most recent you can watch Paul Bloom explaining why he thinks the propensity for theism is an innate bias of our species. Several years back Bloom wrote a piece for The Atlantic, Is God an Accident?, where he makes a similar case. But the general outline of Bloom's line of thinking is actually most powerfully argued in Scott Atran's In God's We Trust. The cognitive psychologists and anthropologists who work within this paradigm operate under some background assumptions in regards to our mental architecture. First, human cognitive states are strongly biased by innate tendencies which have a biological origin. Perception and language acquisition are easily explained by nativist treatments, but Atran and others have argued that more obscure biases such as folk biology also exist, while other domains such as theory of mind are broadly accepted within the scholarly community.

One can conceive of a model where on a lower structural level a set of biological parameters interact with exogenous inputs to generate a set of psychological biases. But the subsequent mental skills are not independent, and I suspect broadly distributed ones contingent upon environmental inputs such as language are among the least encapsulated from other cognitive domains. It seems rather clear that language aptitude is one of the components which can be used to explain the facility for mathematical abstraction, but it can not explain the totality of this skill. Cognitive anthropologists have also noted that preliterate peoples have extreme difficulties with comprehending the logic or rationale behind syllogistic reasoning (see Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind), suggesting that there are strong cultural preconditions to particular styles of thinking which may seem natural to us. Even though language, reading and writing all are learned, they are also facilities which we as humans have an innate aptitude for because of our neurobiology (language is obviously "more innate" insofar as it seems that our priming is so strong that it might emerge out of any conventional socialization processes, which literacy is historically and culturally contingent).

Another working assumption of Bloom, Atran & co. is that a great deal of our cognition is implicit. Again, this is well accepted among the community of scholars. It stands to reason that our conscious mind lives under the illusion that it is all that there is, but a substantial body of work tells us that most of our conscious decisions are strongly influenced and primed by subconscious background parameters. Not only does this include priming an individual immediately prior to a psychological task, but it also includes the enormous swath of territory which falls under the category of intuitive thinking. A dense network of background connections and implicit inferences is often an outsized shadow of the visible chains of reflective rationality. Even in structurally transparent and deductive disciplines such as mathematics the dark-net of subconscious facts and assumptions loom large in the process of creativity.

The fact that psychological biases have many different upstream neurobiological and environmental parameters, as well as the syngergistic nature of cognition which produces subsequent cognitive abilities (e.g., mathematics or painting which includes perspective), means that a hypothesis that posits a God Module is obviously going to be false. There are god modules such as the medulla oblongata, but only insofar as they are necessary for the proper functioning of a human in general. But it seems highly unlikely that there is one localized region of the brain which is specifically the causal element for belief in God (i.e., if said region is damaged atheism ensues, but most other cognitive function is left unscathed). This assumption doesn't derive simply from an a priori understanding of how the mind works; we can see it in how the phenotype of theism plays out. The pathological character of many aphasia sufferers is pretty obvious; in contrast the avowed attitude toward the God hypothesis is characterized by a rich range of opinion in terms of both plausibility and character. In other words, religion is more properly characterized as a quantitative trait which exhibits a wide range of continuous variation, subject to a norm of reaction.

Do note that I said avowed attitude; when it comes to theism there are many ways to evaluate belief or lack thereof. Despite wide variations in verbal descriptions of the particular flavor of deity believers assent to, psychologists know that the implicit model of most humans in regards to supernatural agents is strongly constrained. This is one of the main reasons that many cognitive scientists believe that our mental architecture is rigged toward a belief in god; not only do the gods which individuals from widely disparate societies model in their mind's eye differ from the entities which they avow a conscious belief in, but those psychological constructs exhibit a very strong universal central tendency. In other words, the human model of a god, or supernatural agent if you will, seems to be predicated on the various elements of universal neurobiology. Unless strongly constrained by experimental or observational methodologies as in natural science, or a rigorous formalism as in mathematics, our species tends to reason extremely sloppily so that inferences unmoored from experience or unchanneled by formalism invariably explore an enormous sample space of possibilities starting from the same axioms. That humans tend to conceive of the same god-construct despite lack of communication or outside input suggests that the channeling is occurring on an innate level.

Additionally, not only do theists no matter their affiliation agree upon an intuitive model of God, but so do atheists. Paul Bloom has noted that the offspring of secular parents are usually innate Creationists. Many of the ideas bracketed within "religion" are very natural and intuitive. In our gut we know them to be "true" without deep reflection or analysis. Atheism can not exist without theism because it is simply a negation of the latter. It is a conceit of many atheists that children are naturally unbelievers and that they are indoctrinated into a religious system of belief. This is correct; children are indoctrinated into a system of belief, but more specifically they are indoctrinated into a system, not a belief. That in almost all human societies a supernatural model of the world is numerically dominant strongly suggests that these sorts of belief do not necessarily need the institutional scaffolding of established churches or professional priesthoods. Rather, it seems that these features of religion are secondary and subsequent, and that they operate upon the preexistent assumptions of the population. Some atheists live under the delusion that the withering of organized religion will result in the collapse of belief in God or the supernatural; this is not so. Though the extremely high rates of theism in some societies may be an upper bound contingent upon social and historical conditions, in no society does it seem there exists an inverse dynamic where theism is extant at trivial levels. Note that even after 70 years of state sanctioned atheism Russians have now swung back to a default affiliation with their historical religious identity as Orthodox Christians. This is not to say that Russians are a religiously fervent people; rather, the high levels of atheism espoused during the Soviet era was a function of a skewing of the environmental inputs which shifted the median value of the trait distribution. With the norm relaxed the distribution has shifted back.

The plausibility of theism doesn't need to be something we note only in terms of macrosocial metrics in regards to religious affiliation cross-culturally. As I imply above, theism is at root a psychological phenomena, and the bundle of biases and presuppositions which our biology confers upon us stack the deck in terms of weighting the plausibility of god concepts. This applies to atheists as well. We might not believe in god on the conscious level, but that does not mean that we are immune to the priming affect of agents, and likely supernatural agents as well. The folk wisdom about there being no atheists in foxholes is a reflection of this assumption. Now I'm not going to tell anyone who says they don't believe in god that deep down they really do believe in god; rather, I simply believe that many of the psychological characteristics which prime one for finding god plausible are present in those who consciously assert that they don't believe in gods. For example many atheists may feel unnerved in cemeteries despite a materialist world-view; the psychological response may be a result of social conditioning, but it is also possibly a cognitive reflex at an intersection of environmental inputs (think snake aversion as something similar).

So far I have alluded to biology & psychology, but what about the higher-level social sciences? Paul Bloom and most cognitive scientists are focused on the first two disciplines, so they tend to strongly adhere to a model that religion is a byproduct of our cognitive architecture. An analogy might be the heat given off by the functioning of a car's engine; the heat is not a designed product of the various components of the engine, but it is an inevitable byproduct of the physical processes entailed by combustion. Similarly, theism may not be an adaptation to any exogenous selection pressure, but the intersection of various adaptive psychological characters such as agency detection, theory of mind and folk biology necessarily lead to the plausibility of supernatural agents within the minds of most humans. Because of Bloom's disciplinary focus he tends to not be very open toward a functionalist explanation for theism; that theism (or religion) is an adaptive trait which increases individual fitness. Insofar as explanations at a lower level of organization are preferable to those at a higher level, I think that Bloom's skepticism is warranted. But even cognitive anthropologists who tend to focus on the psychological dimensions of theism can't dismiss the social aspects of religion, and a substantial body of social science research implies that variation in religious belief might track other social variables.

Instead of repeating the functionalist explanations elucidated by scientists such as David Sloan Wilson (see Darwin's Cathedral), I think it is easy to illustrate the relation of these various theories by using an analogy with narrative. Despite the attempts of authors who dabble in "experimental fiction" it seems pretty obvious that a great story has a dimension of temporal permanence derived from the timelessness of the primary themes and styles. The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks to us even after 4,000 years, and many of its motifs are still extant in the heroic fantasy genre. Despite the lack of qualitative originality in plot and the constraints upon the plausible range of the psychology of characters we continue to consume fiction because our brains are attracted to particular themes arranged in a familiar structure. One could contend that fiction is a waste of time, but it seems likely that the same mental ticks which draw us to compelling stories are useful in other areas of life.

But narrative is not only a byproduct of our promiscuous mental functioning, it is an essential part of myth-making and religion. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer has reported on research which suggests that minimally counterintuitive stories are the ones which are most memorable and "sticky" over the long-term. In other words, experimental fiction is just too weird to really make a deep impact, you don't have any common basis for associative memory to operate. In contrast, exceedingly conventional and banal narratives just don't add anything new to the base of data. A boring story is a boring story. But a familiar scenario with just the right amount of spice adds enough twists and turns within the comprehensible base to make it memorable enough to catalog and retrieve later. This explains why most science fiction and fantasy tends to constrain the deviation from normality; you can't relate to a story where most of it is unfamiliar or disorienting.

Of course narrative is an essential part of religion. Even "primitive" religions have a robust narrative base; tales of gods & heroes unfettered by abstruse theologies. The story of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels has a power to draw people in and inspire them toward belief & action. In contrast, despite the fact that Christians accept the divine provenance of Deuteronomy, very few believers have ever recounted to me how it inspires them or serves as the ground of their faith. Just as narrative emerges naturally as a byproduct of our overall psychological architecture, it also immediately slots into the overall cultural entity which we label "religion." I suspect the exact same model is applicable to gods; their plausibility precedes their integration into a religious framework and does not derive from direct adaptation. But the universal nature of religious frameworks as well as storytelling implies that these byproduct traits are almost always subject to co-option by cultural systems which are canalized toward a particular configuration.

But what is driving that canalization? I suspect there is some functional selection going on. Like many social science generalizations I'm not sure I can be very general here. David Sloan Wilson has collected data which shows that religious fundamentalism is more noticeable in economically depressed regions. Which way does the causality run here? I suspect that it is generally in the direction of economic insecurity to religious fundamentalism. The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has elucidated a rational choice inspired framework which posits that religious institutions are firms which offer products which satisfy a fragmented market of religious consumers. This model seems highly plausible for the United States, but there are doubts as to its validity in other cultures where religious switching is not as socially acceptable or viable. Similarly, many of Wilson's adaptive arguments for the functional significance of religion are quite likely more relevant in societies which lack the accoutrements of the welfare state so that religious institutions have few competitors or substitutes. In other words, generalizations about the functional significance of religious institutions may not hold across many environments. Nevertheless, though generalizations on higher levels of organization are less impressive when compared to the relatively simplicity and universality of a biopsychological paradigm, I think it is necessary that we analyze the expression of religion outside the bounds of the human mind. After all, though religious ideas are fundamentally mental, they are embedded within a social matrix and have a geopolitical relevance in terms of how they shape human relations and action.

We can, for instance, see that over the past few thousand years local tribal religions have ceded ground to the dominance of institutional religions which often have multiple products under the same brand name. The number of supernatural agents seems to be decreasing through a process of competition concurrent with the decrease in polities, languages and ethnic groups. But though institutional religions have gone through a process of consolidation this dynamic has limits; the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation or the schisms within the first centuries of Islam attest to this. Though religious institutions far exceed the scale of Dunbar's Number, a One-World-Religion seems as plausible as a One-World-Government. Psychologists have also attempted to move into broader domains of social science. Scott Atran has been at the forefront of attempting to synthesize the cognitivist viewpoint with an analysis of the nature of religious terrorism. Atran emphasizes the power of religious narratives & rituals in cementing group cohesion. The functionalist interpretation on this is pretty obvious; this is a case where heat from one process is quickly being utilized to generate energy through another.

To some extent analysis of religious is like the species problem; we should measure the definition against the utility it provides in a particular context. Species define the joints around which nature is carved, and religion is a label for a cluster of integrated characters which we humans imbue with ontological significance. Both species and religion are important to understand, and can serve as frameworks for robust research programs, but a final definition will never be attained so long as scholars in disparate fields have distinct ends. A diversity of ends does not imply that these ends are contradictory, rather, when you have a many dimensional character it is necessary to observe from a variety of angles to obtain the clearest picture.

Addendum: I want to add something: theism & religion are very robust phenomena. This is why adaptationist explanations are so compelling. That's why an analogy to misunderstandings due to intuitive physics (e.g., flat earth, variance of acceleration in proportion to mass of an objection) is informative, but only to some extent. Overactive agency detection feeds into something which is far more than the sum of their parts, the falsifiable manifestations of religion such as Young Earth Creationism can resist disconfirmation because of their association with psychological tendencies such as group conformity enforced by common rituals & beliefs. To say religion is a spandrel or exaptation understates its interaction with other aspects of human culture so as to make it inevitable and resistant to suppression.

Related: The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell, Modes of religion, Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin'?, An evolutionary anthropology of religion, , God lives, deal with it!, , Belief & belief in belief, Logical consistency is irreligious, God & moralityAre people naturally religious? Yes.... , The round-eyed Buddha, Nerds are nuts, Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm, The God Delusion - Amongst the unbelievers , Innate atheism & variation across societies, "Hard-wired" for God, Buddhism, a religion or not?, Why do people believe in God?, Is religion an adaptation?, Theological incorrectness - when people behave how they shouldn't....sort of , The gods of the cognitive scientists

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fitness is scalable for the rich   posted by Razib @ 1/24/2008 02:23:00 AM

When fecundity does not equal fitness: evidence of an offspring quantity versus quality trade-off in pre-industrial humans:

Maternal fitness should be maximized by the optimal division of reproductive investment between offspring number and offspring quality...We used a dataset of humans spanning three generations from pre-industrial Finland to test how increases in maternal fecundity affect offspring quality and maternal fitness in contrasting socio-economic conditions. For 'resource-poor' landless families, but not 'resource-rich' landowning families, maternal fitness returns diminished with increased maternal fecundity. This was because the average offspring contribution to maternal fitness declined with increased maternal fecundity for landless but not landowning families. This decline was due to reduced offspring recruitment with increased maternal fecundity. However, in landowning families, recruited offspring fecundity increased with increased maternal fecundity. This suggests that despite decreased offspring recruitment, maternal fitness is not reduced in favourable socio-economic conditions due to an increase in subsequent offspring fecundity. These results provide evidence consistent with an offspring quantity-quality trade-off in the lifetime reproduction of humans from poor socio-economic conditions. The results also highlight the importance of measuring offspring quality across their whole lifespan to estimate reliably the fitness consequences of increased maternal fecundity.

Remember the fecund upper classes in Farewell to Alms? In any case, one thing that I have assumed is that this sort of model might explain the success of the Neolithic lifestyle despite its decreases of average quality of life. When populations first take up farming, or migrate to a new area, they are well below the Malthusian limit. In contrast resident hunter-gatherers, who aren't as efficient at extracting productivity per unit area, would already be at their Malthusian limit. One can imagine that a Neolithic deme would rapidly expand and demographically surpass the hunter-gatherers around them. During the initial phases of expansion there would be enough land so that all farmers might be prosperous on a absolute scale. Consider the fitness, both reproductively and physiologically, of Americans on the frontier in comparison to their European ancestors. Of course, within a few generations the land would be "filled up" and a stagnant stationary state would be which point health decreases and the social pathologies characteristic of down-trodden peasantry would manifest themselves.


Friday, November 09, 2007

The evolution & economics of human mate choice   posted by Razib @ 11/09/2007 11:58:00 PM

Tyler Cowen points and interest working paper, What's Love Got To Do With It?
Parental Involvement and Spouse Choice in Urban India
...when parents are involved in mate choice, sons are significantly less likely to marry college-educated women and women engaged in the labor force, after controlling for individual and family characteristics. I show that these effects are driven, at least in part, by parental preferences and cannot be entirely attributed to correlation between arranged marriages and unobserved characteristics or preferences.....

To cut the chase the paper suggests that parents prefer that their sons marry someone who is in a relatively weak bargaining position in terms of allocation of economic resources in the future. The rationale from a parental perspective is that as they age they will depend upon their son's household to provide financial support when their own earning power diminishes (i.e., familial social security). Though a daughter-in-law who is an economically productive professional increases the resources which might be allocated toward her in-laws, the concomitant independence is judged to more likely result in resistance to intergenerational transfers of wealth.

The author focuses upon upper-middle class families in Bombay in her survey, as presumably they are are the cultural "cutting edge" and more likely to manifest the noticeable shift toward "love matches" within Indian society. She notes that arranged marriages are ubiquitous amongst the lower classes and less economically advanced. But I have to wonder, how recent is the ubiquity of this particular cultural practice within South Asia? A survey of the ethnographic literature will show that within the past few centuries (even within the past century) "elite emulation" has been a noticeable dynamic which has transformed Indian society. Within the Hindu context there has also been a great deal of "Sanskritization," an attempt to shift away from local customs and tradition and conform to upper caste practices which often have a North Indian provenance. For example, in South India the Nair caste shifted away from their customary matrilineal & matrifocal systems of inheritance and residence only within the past few centuries (the literature makes clear that other Hindu groups found Nair practices abhorrent). The custom of dowry is often considered part and parcel of Indian culture, but there is a good deal of evidence that many non-upper caste groups have only begun to practice it in the 20th century, prior to which they adhered to brideprice if they engaged in wealth transfer at all. Similar shifts have occurred in terms of the consumption of beef and meat-eating in general.

In the data above arranged marriage is associated with multi-generational extended family households. These marriages are seen as an alliance between families and a way to advance material interests through connections with other lineages of similar power and status, at least on the conscious level (note that the data above implies that the parents are also behaving as rational actors maximizing their own security even if it reduces the greater glory of the family). From a Western perspective the dynamics operant upon European elites until recently serve as a good analogy. Napoleon married the daughter of the Hapsburg emperor because he perceived that the best way for a parvenu soldier to secure his status among the royal families of Europe was to marry a member of one of the oldest aristocratic lineages of note. In return the Austro-Hungarian empire had hope that they'd won a measure of peace and security by cementing an alliance with the conqueror of much of the continent. Though such world-historical implications are not operative in the typical arranged marriage, quite often attention to material wealth, status and the positives & negatives of the possible inter-familial association are considered in great detail. These are the explicit raison de'tre of the marriage.

With that in mind I think that when looking at arranged marriages in the long-view it seems that the relatively rigid form with little input from the principals must have emerged relatively recently in human evolutionary history; likely within the last 10,000 years due to the rise of "civilization" and the accumulation of power, status and wealth among specific lineages within a locale. In many societies, such as early modern Europe and Japan, an arranged marriage was a sign that the familial context was elite. For the typical peasant the pool of potential partners was likely small because of constraints of geography, a man and woman were economic partners in maintaining a lifestyle above the margins of subsistence. Norms and values promoted by elites are certainly extant within the literature which captures the Zeitgeist of any particular age, but until humanity broke out of the Malthusian Trap these values were irrelevant for the overwhelming majority of the population. The current situation in Indian society, where there are competing cultural ideals and the economic wherewithal to engage in a range of choices, is atypical and characteristic of a culture in transition. A wave of elite emulation by the lower orders within Indian society within the past few decades is manifest evidence of some level of economic prosperity, after all dowries are a major burden, while curtailing consumption of potential sources of protein due to concerns about pollution and loss of status also suggest a robust enough diet where such choices are an option (there's actually a good deal of evidence that in some regions of India Hindus converted to Islam simply because they had already lost caste by the consumption of polluting foods, either inadvertently or under duress). The particular dynamics fleshed out above might also not be the norm in the historical scale, as mass adoption of the practice below the highest elites might be relatively recent (social security would have been less of a concern for the extremely elite in most cultures who were safeguarded by rents).

Prior to the Reformation the Catholic Church had generally increased the choice that potential spouses had in regards to their partners and also banned moderately consanguineous relationships (e.g., first cousins). After the Reformation elite lineages began to engage in cousin marriage, often as a way of consolidating property, concentrating wealth and cementing familial bonds. There was also marked tendency toward increased parental control over the marriages of their offspring. These dynamics show that the pent up tendency was there, only constrained by the fiat of the Catholic Church (marriage was a sacrament under religious control, and marriages which produced illegitimate issue could be useless in terms of perpetuating the family legacy). Yet neither of these are major issues for most of Protestant Europe as cultural norms have evolved and shifted naturally. In the case of India as the upper and upper-middle classes continue to grow in wealth it seems likely that norms will naturally evolve away from parental control toward individual choice. As the elites abandon practices such as arranged marriage and dowry once their group-level utility decreases one assumes that the lower orders will emulate them quickly, in particular since the gains from some of the practices (e.g., consolidation of wealth via arranged marriage) are minimal and the losses from others are more significant (e.g., debts incurred due to dowries or more marginal nutrition because of constrainment of dietary sources of protein).

An interesting final point is that the paper above notes that there is some positive correlation between arranged marriage and caste, religious and ethnic endogamy vis-a-vis a love marriage, while there is some disassortative mating along the axis of educational attainment (i.e., sons with a college education are less likely to marry a woman of the same educational status). I have often wondered as to the effect of the changes in the cultural environment in regards to assortative mating and the heritability of particular traits (assortative mating often increases within population heritability). The classic example is the fact that most female physicists are married to other physicists. This is a function of the lopsided sex ratio, but in the early 20th century obviously this wouldn't have been a nearly irrelevant fact because there were hardly any female physics Ph.D.s. A pooling of extremely intelligent individuals at elite universities or graduate schools from which they select their partners is a radical change; after all, higher education for women is a relatively new phenomenon. One assumes that the likelihood is that most men with higher educations would find a wife from the same social order in the past, but because of within family variation in propensities I assume that the assortative mating was less pronounced (fathers & brothers are imperfect proxies). An economist may see in love marriages a more efficient allocation of human capital, but I can't but help wonder as to the possibility that the enormous sample space of mates of like mind and character is a more efficient across population genetic architecture (at least for the purposes of increasing the variance of trait value).

Note: The popularity of tales of tragic love attest to the recent origin and shallow extent of arranged marriage where the offspring have little choice. The lack of evolution of the underlying psychology suggests little selective pressure.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Of birds & men: testosterone edition   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2007 01:20:00 PM

Natural Variation in a Testosterone-Mediated Trade-Off between Mating Effort and Parental Effort:
Male birds frequently face a trade-off between acquiring mates and caring for offspring. Hormone manipulation studies indicate that testosterone often mediates this trade-off, increasing mating effort while decreasing parental effort. Little is known, however, about individual covariation between testosterone and relevant behavior on which selection might act. Using wild, male dark-eyed juncos,,,we measured individual variation in testosterone levels before and after standardized injections of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)...We correlated these testosterone increases with behavioral measures of mating and parental effort...Males that showed higher postchallenge testosterone displayed more territorial behavior, and males that produced higher testosterone increases above initial levels displayed reduced parental behavior. Initial testosterone levels were positively but nonsignificantly correlated with aggression but did not predict parental behavior. These relationships suggest that natural variation in testosterone, specifically the production of short-term increases, may underlie individual variation in the mating effort/parental effort trade-off. We discuss the implications of these results for the evolution of hormonally mediated trade-offs.

The results of this paper are not surprising, though not as clear as one would hope for. That being said, man is not a bird. So this paper, Testosterone and Marriage among Ariaal Men of Northern Kenya is of more interest:

Recent studies suggest that differential human male investment in mating (male-male competition and mate-seeking behavior) and parenting effort may be associated with variation in testosterone levels. The Ariaal present an interesting test case because marital relations tend to be aloof and direct paternal care minimal by cross-cultural standards. Polygyny is prevalent and increases with age, and the age-set system highly structures the transition to marriage. A test of the effect of marital status on testosterone levels among the Ariaal involved 205 men aged 20 and older from a settled agropastoral community and nomadic populations. Each participant provided morning and afternoon saliva samples in which testosterone levels were measured, provided demographic background during interviews, and had anthropometrics taken. As predicted, during the dynamic ages (20–39) of transition from life as a bachelor and warrior to monogamous marriage, men with one wife had significantly lower testosterone levels than unmarried men. Contrary to prediction, however, polygynously married men did not have higher testosterone levels than their monogamously married counterparts. While variation in testosterone may be associated with mating effort in young Ariaal men, political networks and wealth may be better predictors of marital status in older men.

ScienceDaily has more detail on this study. Man is obviously not a bird, but all men are not the Ariaal of Kenya, so one has to be cautious about the generalizing from one case study. That being said, the peculiarity of the results here point to the problem that human societies are so complicated in terms of countervailing parameters that epiphenomenally they can throw biosocial expectations for a loop. Virpi Lummaa's finding that the presence of grandfather's may reduce a child's fitness for example is a curious result which may simply be a sociological epiphenomenon which may take biology a while to catch up which point social systems may have changed radically so as to make the issue moot. In the big-picture philosophical context the flexibility of social systems which characterizes our species, and is likely one of our adaptive traits, may be seen as a net wash. But in terms of proximate examination and understanding of human societies it obviously matters quite a bit.

In the press there are often stories about men with powerful jaws being more attractive. Later there are follow ups which suggest that softer faced men are preferred except when women are fertile. From these data researchers often draw very general conclusions, but the polymoprhic tendency of human behavior and physique might suggest to us that the temporally protean nature of our societies and the wide scope for a host of stable niches across their enormous spatial spans may mean that these general explanations are ultimately irrelevant. Human variation could very well be a function of the constant balancing effects of changing social circumstances to which biological evolution can never be optimized. It isn't that our species is post-evolutionary, rather, the gene-culture co-evolutionary arms race is a more much complex and turbid dynamic than current models can conceptualize with clarity.

Addendum: Some dynamics are simple enough; it seems clear that genes did catch up with cattle culture across most of Eurasia.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Sex-biased dispersal....   posted by Razib @ 10/05/2007 12:03:00 PM

Apropos of my post about patrilocality and genetics, here's an article (Open Access), Female-biased dispersal and patrilocal kin groups in a mammal with resource-defence polygyny:
Female-biased dispersal (FBD) is rare among mammals (e.g. African wild dogs Lycaon pictus...Chimpanzees Pan troglodytes...and its occurrence frequently correlates with resource-defence polygyny...However, a resource-defence strategy does not necessarily lead to FBD...and there are examples of mammals with FBD that do not follow a resource-defence mating strategy...In a considerable number of polygynous mammalian species, females may disperse to avoid inbreeding with their fathers when male tenure exceeds female age at first conception...In the greater sac-winged bat (Saccopteryx bilineata), females have been reported to disperse from their natal colony, whereas at least some of the male progeny remain in their natal colony...The mating system of this bat is best described as resource-defence polygyny...this would mean that females are assumed to disperse owing to the inbreeding risk arising from male philopatry. However, there are currently no studies investigating the causes for female dispersal in this species and if there is a risk of inbreeding arising from female breeding philopatry and male natal philopatry.

Well, humans aren't bats. That being said, I wonder if philopatry is critical in inducing males to be "good dads." While females have perfect certainty as to who their offspring are, male paternity confidence is less assured. Matrilineal and matrifocal societies seem to be optimal scenarios for males not investing in their offspring because of lack of certainty and social supports for males (this is why maternal uncles loom large in many cultures). In contrast, patrilineal and patrifocal societies may serve as watchdogs which guarantee paternity certainty so that males can maximize their fitness by investing in their own offspring. If a man moves to live with his wife's family it seems likely that if she engaged in infidelity the chances would be far higher than not that her relatives would cover up for her; after all the coefficient of relatedness likely increases rather than decreases since the lover is likely to be a local.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Chimps, the ultimatum game & time preference   posted by Razib @ 10/04/2007 03:12:00 PM

In Science there's a new report, Chimpanzees Are Rational Maximizers in an Ultimatum Game; the title says it all. On the other hand, The Evolutionary Origins of Human Patience: Temporal Preferences in Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Human Adults doesn't clue you in in the title that chimpanzees have lower time preference when it come food (they're more patient and will take a bigger later payoff than humans). The most recent issue of The Economist covers these results as well as the finding of heritability in response to the ultimatum game.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lap dancing for science   posted by p-ter @ 9/30/2007 09:38:00 AM

The role of biology in constraining/enabling human culture is largely underappreciated outside of, well, the small group of people who study biology and culture. But that role is clearly enormous. Consider, for example, what is sometimes referred to as "cryptic ovulation"-- the fact that human females do not conspicuously display the fact that they are ovulating. In many other primates, the females have a patch of hairless skin that, as ovulation approaches, swells up bright red (see the picture of this in a baboon), signaling that she is fertile and driving the males a little crazy. Humans clearly do not do this, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to claim this was a biological prerequisite (or as close as you can get to one) for today's mixed-gender offices and the large-scale incorporation of women into the workforce.

But how cryptic is the human cryptic ovulation? Women are generally aware of where they are in their cycle, and men with long-term girlfriends/wives have probably noted subtle physiological changes (in breast size, for example) that correspond to their partner's hormonal fluctuations. Is this a subtler version of the sexual swelling in other primates? There is some evidence that this is the case, but Geoff Miller and colleagues take a rather novel approach to the question:
To see whether estrus was really "lost" during human evolution (as researchers often claim), we examined ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by professional lap dancers working in gentlemen's clubs. Eighteen dancers recorded their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for 60 days on a study web site
This is a nice way at getting around subjective measures of "attractiveness" in studies like this-- the amount of money made by a stripper probably corresponds pretty well to how physically attractive the males in the audience find her. And as seen in the graph on the right, there's a noticeable peak in earnings among normally-cycling women at around 10 days (ovulation).

The sample size is small, of course, but the effect is consistent with other evidence than human females modulate their physical appearance and behavior according to the menstrual cycle, so I'm inclined to believe it. And needless to say, if this is the case, it suggests a rather simple profit-maximizing strategy for the professional lap dancer.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Grandmother Effect in Gambia   posted by Razib @ 9/19/2007 10:57:00 AM

I've referred to Virpi Lummaa's research on the Grandmother Hypothesis using Finnish records a fair amount, check out this new paper (Open Access) using Gambian data. There are other papers and studies (use for this) among groups like the Khasis and Bengalis (Khasis = matrilineal & matrifocal, Bengalis = patrilineal & patriarchal, but both show maternal grandmother effect). Generally the results are often ambiguous, but what directionality there is in the data implies some relationship between maternal grandmothers and fitness. Most workers have a pretty straightforward interpretation that the bias toward maternal grandmothers taking an interest in their grandchildren, but less so paternal grandmothers, is a function of past human mating patterns. There has long been debate about whether patrilocality or matrilocality was more the norm genetically (early genetic data implied the former, more recent work has clouded the issue). Ethnographic surveys from anthropology tend to show a bias toward patrilocal, and often patrilineal cultures. But, there is also a tendency to see these features more often in "large scale" as opposed to "small scale" cultures (and historical records show a shift from matrifocality toward patrifocality as societies become more "civilized," e.g., Japan or Southern India). I have alluded to the fact that I believe that the last 10,000 years and the Neolithic Revolution resulted in the emergence of new and often constraining cultural adaptations, I believe that normative patrifocality is one of those.1 Though I do believe in the power of recent human evolution, I think that time lag is probably more likely in something as complex and contingent as the physiological of menopause and the evolutionary logic which drove it (just like romantic love, which was also quite often an irrelevancy or obstacle for high status lineages for whom mating was a material exchange between consenting cartels).

1 - Indo-European cultures often alluded to a special affectionate role for the maternal uncle. And yet note that nominally they were generally patrilineal cultures. This is one case where action and theory might have varied systematically.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Sexual charity   posted by p-ter @ 8/08/2007 07:56:00 PM

I'm as much of a sucker for the flawed thought experiment as the next guy, so I'll pass on this one, via Robin Hanson:
Scott Aaronson asks a great question:

Consider two men, A and B. Man A steals food because he's starving to death, while Man B commits a rape because no woman will agree to have sex with him. From a Darwinian perspective, the two cases seem exactly analogous. In both we have a man on the brink of genetic oblivion, who commandeers something that isn't his in order to give his genes a chance of survival. And yet the two men strike just about everyone - including me - as inhabiting completely different moral universes. The first man earns only our pity. We ask: what was wrong with the society this poor fellow inhabited, such that he had no choice but to steal? The second man earns our withering contempt.

One problem with the question is that in our society giving enough sex to satisfy is expensive, while giving enough food to satisfy is cheap. So it might help to imagine a society where the person who lost the food was also in some, though less, danger of starving.

But even then food and sex seem to be treated differently. When we give food aid we don't just give rice and beans to keep folks from starving; we give them enough money to have a moderately tasty diet. We do nothing remotely similar for sex.

To me the obvious answer is that our concern about inequality is not very general - compared to inequality in access to food, humans are just not that concerned about sexual inequality, especially for men. Presumably for our ancestors, the gene pool of a tribe could benefit from equalizing food in ways that it could not benefit by equalizing sex.
Hanson's answer is far too simple a selective scenario. I'm even inclined to think that the evolution of sexual jealousy and the evolution of "justice" are less different than the question presupposes. It's easy to say "imagine a situation where stealing from an individual would lead to their starvation", but less easy to actually imagine it. How different were food and sexual access to our ancestors?

The answer, I'm inclined to think, is: not so different. Among chimpanzees, food and sex are both commodities to be traded:
Political coalitions were recognized early on as part of an elaborate 'marketplace of services' in which chimpanzees trade grooming, sex, food and support. The rules of reciprocity governing social exchange are only beginning to be understood, but evidence is accumulating that chimpanzees repay both positive acts (for example, sharing food preferentially with previous grooming partners) and negative acts (for example, squaring accounts with those who previously opposed them) [citation]
While it's difficult to study these sorts of exchanges, a specific instance of male chimpanzees exchanging sexual access to females for political support was recently documented [citation], suggesting that perhaps this moral instinct Hanson is ready to justify evolutionarily isn't quite so universal.

That's all in chimpanzees, of course, and it's true we live in a society where rape is certainly considered more reprehensible than stealing (of course, rape in wartime was considered par for the course until very recently). I'd be interested to see a study, however, comparing punishments for rape versus stealing across different societies, ranging from hunter/gatherer to our own. Is stricter condemnation of the forceful taking of sex as compared to the forceful taking of food a human universal?

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Mating minds?   posted by p-ter @ 8/06/2007 08:38:00 PM

The Economist has a review of a paper briefly mentioned here on "conspicuous altruism" and signaling. It's a good account of the research, but I feel like some of the ideas are getting mixed up. The Economist sums up Geoff Miller's "mating mind" theory thusly:
Dr Miller, who works at the University of New Mexico, thinks that mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated artefacts, evolved originally for sexual display.
The experiments then described don't really have much to do with that theory, as far as I can tell. Here's the summary of the results:
The sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. Moreover, they do not waste their resources by behaving like that all the time. Only when it counts sexually are men profligate and women helpful...Romantically primed men wanted to buy items that they could wear or drive, rather than things to be kept at home. Their motive, therefore, was not mere acquisitiveness. Similarly, romantically primed women volunteered for activities such as working in a shelter for the homeless, rather than spending an afternoon alone picking up rubbish in a park. For both sexes, however, those in an unromantic mood were indifferent to the public visibility of their choices.
This is an interesting result, but what does it have to do with the evolution of language or "human-ness"?


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ultimatum elsewhere   posted by Razib @ 7/11/2007 01:08:00 PM

Jake & Kara @ Pure Pedantry have some interesting comments on the recent Ultimatum game & testosterone paper.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Evolutionary psychology and its "truths"   posted by Razib @ 7/10/2007 08:46:00 PM

Over the years I've become more skeptical of evolutionary psychology, or, more precisely the school of thought which follows in the wake of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby's collaborations with a host of researchers in the 1980s. Look over the Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature. Lots of interesting hypotheses and conjectures, but some of the assertions they present as if they are established fact. There is unfortunately a reality to the "Just So" criticism of evolutionary psychology. The problem is, I think, a superficial comprehension of evolutionary biology. As an analogy: imagine that engineering was based upon conceptual physics as opposed to calculus based physics. You would have a "general sense" of the arc of a parabola, but you wouldn't have a mathematically precise picture so where the shot lands is still vague conjecture and intuition. Cosmides & Tooby made evolutionary psychology respectable again (after the sociobiology wars of the 1970s) by focusing as a matter of doctrine on human universals, but alas I fear that the ideological straight-jackets which the field started with (which one of the authors of the above piece, Satoshi Kanazawa, does not seem impacted by at least) resulted in a certain intellectual laziness. For a generation the criticisms of evolutionary psychology were directed from the corner of screaming ideologues; a natural response is to assume that most criticisms can be rejected as partisan and specious. But criticism and skepticism are essential parts of normal science.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Human variation and the ultimatum game   posted by Razib @ 7/08/2007 11:36:00 PM

A few days ago I posted on results which suggest a positive relationship between high testosterone and rejection of low offers in non-iterated "ultimatum games." I just noticed that the paper is open access, so I suggest you read it yourself. I will note two things:

1) The subjects were Harvard students who had taken at least two semesters of microeconomics. I don't know if offering this sample of students $40 is a good model for a realistic experiment (the typical Harvard student is rather affluent).

2) Though not statistically significant (the N was small) the authors did find that high testosterone males also offered more than low testosterone males. This might relate to the rather inexplicable generosity that alpha males in tribal bands exhibit when it comes to sharing out the proceeds of the hunt.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Quick links   posted by p-ter @ 7/07/2007 01:43:00 PM

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias has a couple interesting posts up-- the first on a paper suggesting that conspicuous consumption in men and conspicuous "nice-ness" (my term) in women are "costly signals" in the sense of the handicap principle, and the second on a sociobiological theory for the demographic transition.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Variation as the ultimate   posted by Razib @ 7/05/2007 12:31:00 PM

Many of you have heard of the Ultimatum Game:
The ultimatum game is an experimental economics game in which two parties interact anonymously and only once, so reciprocation is not an issue. The first player proposes how to divide a sum of money with the second party. If the second player rejects this division, neither gets anything. If the second accepts, the first gets his demand and the second gets the rest.

In theory a "rational" player should accept whatever is offered when there isn't a repeated iteration. Reality is different. From The Economist:
...Those results recorded, Dr Burnham took saliva samples from all the students and compared the testosterone levels assessed from those samples with decisions made in the one-round game.

As he describes in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the responders who rejected a low final offer had an average testosterone level more than 50% higher than the average of those who accepted. Five of the seven men with the highest testosterone levels in the study rejected a $5 ultimate offer but only one of the 19 others made the same decision.

What does this tell us? That physiological variables which are under biological (and ultimately genetic) control can affect the typical behavior a given individual exhibits, and, that that behavior can vary despite the same inputs across the population. There isn't any one H. economicus, there are many different ways humans interact and their propensity for a particular strategy might be conditional upon biological parameters.

But of course this doesn't mean that a given individual practices a fixed strategy even for the same inputs over time, just as strategies are mixed throughout the population so they are often mixed over time for any given individual. There is both population level and temporal variation which must be taken into account here; the flat uniform world of older economic imaginations were painted in shades of gray despite the multi-colored nature of reality.

Additionally, as I have noted before, even genetically close groups which are culturally distinct can exhibit wildly different modal responses to these various experimental economic games. This suggests that variation is not just extant on the biological level (e.g., tracking testosterone variation within the population), but also on the cultural level as the social parameters shift and reshape the landscape of gene-environment interaction. In other words, the behavioral economic biases can be likened to norms of response of particular genotypes in various cultural environments. Though the median value may shift, the distribution remains the same (e.g., if a particular individual is high testosterone it is likely that their response to the ultimatum game in one iteration will always lay at one end of the distribution across cultures though the range and shape of the distributions may vary quite a bit).

Reality is complex. I'm alluding here to the interaction of genetic parameters with various cultural norms. Additionally, the current work in relation to various small scale societies where the "nominal" sums offered by economists is non-trivial implies that analogical reasoning plays a strong role in determining how the typical individual will respond. It seems that most peoples don't conceive of utility maximization, they simply resort to analogies with transactions in their conventional life which can be mapped onto the games they are being forced to play. So there are innate parameters that result in a central tendency as well as variation, but there are also cultural parameters which modulate the range and constrain the scale, and, these often express themselves general intelligence operating through analogical (as opposed to deductive) reasoning. This turns rationality into a whole new beast altogether, not only is it bounded, it is nearly eviscerated as we understand it.

But why this variation in the first place? First, I am implying that the conditional responses that an individual gives has an expectation which is determined in large part by their genetic inheritance. Imagine for example that the ratio of "aggressive" to "passive" responses in a given game that an individual gives over time as a ratio, and that this ratio is placed upon a graph. I suspect that in many cases you would generate some sort of normal distribution (you might have to transform it though). There would be a median modal ratio; there would be those rare players who engage in "fixed" strategies where they were invariant. In this way you can re-conceptualize the behaviors documented in experimental economics as continuous quantitative traits. We know from population genetic theory that such traits have not been subject to powerful directional selection for long periods of time. Otherwise, the underlying genetic variation would have been exhausted as one behavioral morph comes to dominate the population of strategies (the range of basal testosterone should be very small and predominantly environmental/non-heritable). The reality of polymorphism might imply that the "rationality landscape" (to borrow a term) is characterized by multiple optima. Balancing selective forces such as frequency dependence and environmental variation might also result perpetuation of the mix. Layered on top of this evolutionary biological level is the flux of cultural inputs which serves as the background environment in which the predispositions develop into lifelong typical strategies. We've come a long way from reciprocal altruism.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Treat the stranger as you would be treated   posted by Razib @ 6/25/2007 02:40:00 PM

Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children:
Debates about altruism are often based on the assumption that it is either unique to humans or else the human version differs from that of other animals in important ways. Thus, only humans are supposed to act on behalf of others, even toward genetically unrelated individuals, without personal gain, at a cost to themselves. Studies investigating such behaviors in nonhuman primates, especially our close relative the chimpanzee, form an important contribution to this debate. Here we present experimental evidence that chimpanzees act altruistically toward genetically unrelated conspecifics. In addition, in two comparative experiments, we found that both chimpanzees and human infants helped altruistically, regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual-all features previously thought to be unique to humans. The evolutionary roots of human altruism may thus go deeper than previously thought, reaching as far back as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

The roots of altruism may go back quite far indeed; the elaboration and extension, not so much. After all, pigeons and rats have numeracy. Only humans have math. This might be the case where it is not the sufficiency of one necessary condition but the necessity of multiple conditions. Science Now has a summary.