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December 30, 2008

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Via Scientific American magazine:

Fallacy 3: “Our Modern Skulls House a Stone Age Mind” Pop EP’s claim that human nature was designed during the Pleistocene, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, gets it wrong on both ends of the epoch.

...

The view that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind” gets things wrong on the contemporary end of our evolutionary history as well. The idea that we are stuck with a Pleistocene-adapted psychology greatly underestimates the rate at which natural and sexual selection can drive evolutionary change. Recent studies have demonstrated that selection can radically alter the life-history traits of a population in as few as 18 generations (for humans, roughly 450 years).

Of course, such rapid evolution can occur only with significant change in the selection pressures acting on a population. But environmental change since the Pleistocene has unquestionably altered the selection pressures on human psychology. The agricultural and industrial revolutions precipitated fundamental changes in the social structures of human populations, which in turn altered the challenges humans face when acquiring resources, mating, forming alliances or negotiating status hierarchies. Other human activities—ranging from constructing shelter to preserving food, from contraception to organized education—have also consistently altered the selection pressures. Because we have clear examples of post-Pleistocene physiological adaptation to changing environmental demands (such as malaria resistance), we have no reason to doubt similar psychological evolution.

Tabarrok casts some doubt on the negative externality of wealthy peers:
http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/08/home-envy.html

I would say the revealed preference of migration supports him.

Riffing on Doug S.

Do you know any "horse people"?

It seems hard to explain why someone would pour all their resources, time and money, in to horses which they spend very little time riding, but a *lot* of time mucking for.

Unless they are bred for it.

It seems unlikely that any person whose ancestors come from horse country would not be bred for a world with horses.

Similarly, one could blame the Great Depression on people being bred to farming having a hard time adjusting to a manufacturing world.

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country. There is an opportunity for progress here.

I'm working on it!

Another problem with our oversized world is the illusion of increased competition.. in a "neighborhood" the size of Earth - well, you're actually quite unlikely to run into either Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie on any given day. But the media relentlessly bombards you with stories about the interesting people who are much richer than you or much more attractive, as if they actually constituted a large fraction of the world.

I wrote about this problem a few years ago.

We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things.

Implication being that we're wasting our time?

Hope not, as debating politics is also a way to learn and understand politics. National or international politics are the equivalent of, say, the weather - something we experience, can't affect, but which we surely want to understand.

TGGP: with respect to migration, I always thought the idea was to immigrate to a land of "opportunity" -- that is, the attraction is that if you move to America (or wherever) you'll have more social AND economic mobility. I know immigrants (to my own country, Canada) who actually were quite despondent for a while after arriving here because, while their nominal income increased their relative social position took a serious dive (to stereotype, think of an Indian doctor working here as a code monkey).

It seems to me the phenomena Eliezer is describing are well illustrated by (my own experience in) academia. On the one hand people overspecialize to find a sufficiently small pond that they can be the big fish. On the other, the superstars I know best are extraordinarily competitive/driven and tend to think of the whole world as consisting of other high-achieving academics and assorted debris, thus reducing the "world" literally to a few hundred monkeyspheres in size.

"[...] naturally specializing further as more knowledge is discovered and we become able to conceptualize more complex areas of study [...]"

So, how does this spiral of specialization square with living by one's own strength?

Could there be a niche for generalists?

@Eli

"For every rule within your company, you may not know the person who decided on that rule, and have no realistic way to talk to them about the effects of that rule on you."

Which is one reason I run the prediction market. Corporate markets, once they take strong root, can change the organization, just as Robin predicted. It takes a little time though.

"Angelina Jolie"

Someone has to sit on top of the female monkey hierarchy, Eli. We really don't care who it is, or if we meet her, as long as we can kind of relate to her somehow and understand the unspoken rules by which she is judged, so we can rank ourselves in this order and know where we sit ourselves.

On reflection, I may have preferred her when she was a scary skank sporting a vial of blood around her neck who French-kissed her brother. But I'm an outlier.

'Buller is well known in the community he is attacking for misrepresenting the claims of the literature, ignoring evidence that contradicts his views, and generally engaging in academic malpractice. (He also doesn't understand the most basic principle in evolutionary biology, adaptationism.) Responses to these criticisms, which he has made before, are gathered here:

http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/buller08.htm'

Another good link from the SciAm comments is http://www.pitt.edu/~machery/papers/MAchery_Barrett_%202006_Buller.pdf

frelkins: Someone has to sit on top of the female monkey hierarchy, Eli. We really don't care who it is, or if we meet her, as long as we can kind of relate to her somehow and understand the unspoken rules by which she is judged, so we can rank ourselves in this order and know where we sit ourselves.

None of this addresses the point: we compare ourselves to a much bigger hierarchy than we were programmed for, which means far more losers and far fewer winners. Instead of winning by being the best female monkey out of dozens, you have to be the best female monkey out of tens of millions to billions. That's a much tougher contest, and it's hard on us psychologically.

@Patri

"Instead of winning by being the best female monkey"

Girlworld isn't like that, Patri. Isn't that guyworld you're describing? I don't have be the best skirt monkey at all to "win," if you consider what my chick definition of winning is. "Being the best" is what male monkeys need to be - the gorilla troupe's got only 1 alpha silverback.

Whereas all I need to be is just high enough in the harem hierarchy that the silverback will do me when I solicit him and I have enough social support among my female relatives to raise his kids -- or the kids I am passing off as his. As a female, I like a larger social network very much, more help with child rearing and more useful alliances.

However a larger group does make it harder to be that 1 silverback, I agree.

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band, because it's harder to talk to the tribal chief or (if that fails) leave unpleasant restrictions and start your own country. There is an opportunity for progress here.
I strongly disagree with this statement. A tribal tyrant likely has much greater effect on someone's personal life than a president or legislator. Its probably harder to start your own country today, but its not harder to leave your country (tribe) to join another. I'd bet its a lot easier, actually. In modern times, people are parts of many different hierarchies, each of which directly impacts their person life. If they don't like one hierarchy, then can leave it. A tribe of 50 is like a small high school; you can't avoid the bullies, and those on the bottom of the totem pole often just stay there. In the real world, freedom of association combined with modern technologies mean the oppressed can often simply avoid oppressors (or the poor can avoid associating with the rich, the dumb with the smart, etc).

I think you're stretch evolutionary psych a bit too far. Yes people spend a lot of time arguing about how to fix the world, as if they could, but doing so is a signal of intelligence, loyalty to certain groups (i.e., liberals over conservatives), and probably other things I'm not thinking of. If people actually argued politics because their stone-age minds told them it was important, they'd do so more seriously. Instead, political decision-making is a mockery of science and truth (e.g., Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan's critiques of democracies).

In other words, I think the greater freedom of association and better communication and transportation technologies have reduced negative hierarchical externalities. If people cared so much about relative income, they'd take the $100k over the $50k, and simply find new friends that weren't making more money than them. Of course, discussing money is impolite partially because it creates these externalities (though we do need to distinguish between stated preferences and revealed preferences; TGGP's link is excellent). So I don't see how our stone-age brains are all that handicapped here. We aren't living in tribal bands, where we need personal relationships for reliable trade. Losers in one hierarchy can simply leave it and join another (e.g., the school nerd playing WoW over varsity sports). Our institutions and technologies have evolved to deal with hierarchical issues.

This is getting rather off-topic, but there is an excellent EconTalk podcast where Russ Roberts blows some holes in inequality externality arguments (specifically how they can exist when most people don't know their neighbor's income with any sort of accuracy?).

Though it's a side issue, what's even more... interesting.... is the way that our brains simply haven't updated to their diminished power in a super-Dunbarian world. We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things.

Thank you. That's one of those insights that makes this blog worth reading.

When I discuss politics, it's almost always primarily for the entertainment value. It's like reading about quantum physics, or how to play better chess.

One of the primary principles of evolutionary psychology is that "Our modern skulls house a stone age mind"

Our minds are made by (essentially) stone-age genes, but they import up-to-date memes - and are a product of influences from both sources.

So: our minds are actually pretty radically different from stone-age minds - because they have downloaded and are running a very different set of brain-software routines. This influence of memes explains why modern society is so different from the societies present in the stone age.

Yes humans are better at dealing with groups of size 7 and 50, but I don't think that has much to do with your complaint. You are basically noticing that you would probably be the alpha male in a tribe of 50, ruling all you surveyed, and wouldn't that be cool. Or in a world of 5000 people you'd be one of the top 100, and everyone would know your name, and wouldn't that be cool. Even we had better ingrown tools for dealing with larger social groups, you'd still have to face the fact that as a small creature in a vast social world, most such creatures can't expect to be very widely known or influential.

"But the media relentlessly bombards you with stories about the interesting people who are much richer than you or much more attractive, as if they actually constituted a large fraction of the world."

This seems to be at least part of the explanation why television is the most important lifestyle factor. Studies of factors influencing both happiness and evolutionary fitness have found television is the one thing that really stands out above the noise -- the less of it you watch, the better off you are in every way.

The Internet is a much better way to interact with the world, both because it lets you choose a community of reasonable size to be involved with, and because it's active rather than passive -- you can do something to improve your status on a mailing list, whereas you can't do anything to improve your status relative to Angelina Jolie (the learned helplessness affect again).

But we already live in a world, right now, where people are less in control of their social destinies than they would be in a hunter-gatherer band...

If you lived in a world the size of a hunter-gatherer band, then it would be easier to find something important at which to be the best - or do something that genuinely struck you as important, without becoming lost in a vast crowd of others with similar ideas.

Can you see the contradiction, bemoaning that people are now "less in control" while exercising ever-increasing freedom of expression? Harder to "find something important" with so many more opportunities available? Can you see the confusion over context that is increasingly not ours to control?

Eliezer, here again you demonstrate your bias in favor of the context of the individual. Dunbar's (and others') observations on organizational dynamics apply generally, while your interpretation appears to speak quite specifically of your experience of Western culture and your own perceived place in the scheme of things.

Plentiful contrary views exist to support a sense of meaning, purpose, pride implicit in the recognition of competent contribution to community without the (assumed) need to be seen as extraordinary. Especially still in modern Japan and Asia, the norm is to bask in recognition of competent contribution and to recoil from any suggestion that one might substantially stand out. False modesty this is not. In Western society too, examples of fulfillment and recognition through service run deeply, although this is belied in the (entertainment) media.

Within any society, recognition confers added fitness, but to satisfice it is not necessary to be extraordinary.

But if people keep getting smarter and learning more - expanding the number of relationships they can track, maintaining them more efficiently...[relative to the size of the interacting population]..then eventually there could be a single community of sentients, and it really would be a single community.

Compare:

But as the cultural matrix keeps getting smarter—supporting increasing degrees of freedom with increasing probability—then eventually you could see self-similarity of agency over increasing scale, and it really would be a fractal agency.

Well, regardless of present point of view—wishing all a rewarding New Year!

Wallace: The Internet is a much better way to interact with the world, both because it lets you choose a community of reasonable size to be involved with, and because it's active rather than passive -- you can do something to improve your status on a mailing list, whereas you can't do anything to improve your status relative to Angelina Jolie (the learned helplessness affect again).

I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force.

Even we had better ingrown tools for dealing with larger social groups, you'd still have to face the fact that as a small creature in a vast social world, most such creatures can't expect to be very widely known or influential.

They can expect to be known to most people, if most people know most other people. They can expect to be influential, if they have a good idea that isn't yet known, and people are better at recognizing good ideas from their friends. They can expect to be respected as the leading expert in their natural specialty. Influence and significance are not actually conserved quantities.

You don't have to be alpha to achieve satisfaction in a community. Being a primate-style alpha comes with its own set of problems. Significance is one thing; it's another matter entirely to exercise social power strong enough that other people will heavily filter their communications to you.

Virtually everyone in today's world is influential in absolute terms, and should be respected for their unique contribution. The problem is those eager to be substantially influential in percentage terms.

Virtually everyone in today's world is influential in absolute terms, and should be respected for their unique contribution. The problem is those eager to be substantially influential in percentage terms.

Not sure what you refer to here - is it that we're alive at a time when there are only ~6 billion people in the whole universe? If people realized that and made it part of their identities - which is something I've occasionally advocated - then it might help on one score. But I'm not sure people would really respect each other on just that basis, if otherwise they're still doing the same sort of paperwork every day as 200 other people in a multinational corporation. And if you can't identify the mark that you're leaving on the universe, does it really help that much to know that you had some kind of effect you can't identify?

Obviously percentage influence is a zero-sum game, just like percentage wealth, but I'm not sure the underlying pie is of fixed size here.

"I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force."

If you think that, why haven't you canceled your Internet access yet? :P I think anyone who finds it drains more than it gives back, is using it wrong. (Admittedly spending eight hours a day playing World of Warcraft does count as using it wrong.)

Even if Earth ends in a century, virtually everyone in today's world is absolutely influential. Even if 200 folks do the same sort of work in the same office, they don't do the exact same work, and usually that person wouldn't be there or be paid if no one thought their work made any difference. You can even now easily identify your mark, but it is usually tedious to trace it out, and few have the patience for it.

I think it bears repeating here:

Influence is only one aspect of the moral formula; the other aspect is the particular context of values being promoted.

These can be quite independent, as with a tribal chief, with substantial influence, acting to promote the perceived values of his tribe, vs. the chief acting to promote his narrower personal values. [Note that the difference is not one of fitness but of perceived morality. Fitness is assessed only indirectly within an open context.]

Can we have links to research on impact of television, Internet etc. on happiness etc.? This sounds interesting.

Can we have links to research on impact of television, Internet etc. on happiness etc.? This sounds interesting.

I'd be interested as well. I suspect the causality is mostly in the other direction, i.e. it's not that watching TV making you unhappy, but that happy people have better things to do than watch TV.

"Though it's a side issue, what's even more... interesting.... is the way that our brains simply haven't updated to their diminished power in a super-Dunbarian world. We just go on debating politics, feverishly applying our valuable brain time to finding better ways to run the world, with just the same fervent intensity that would be appropriate if we were in a small tribe where we could persuade people to change things."

Actually Eliezer, this is national indoctrination. In Costa Rica people spend MUCH less time discussing better ways to run the world. In Kazakhstan they would look at you like you were crazy if you spent ANY time doing so. Things just are the way they are and no-one can know what that way is. People aren't even interested in knowing what is legal or illegal etc.

"Even if 200 folks do the same sort of work in the same office, they don't do the exact same work, and usually that person wouldn't be there or be paid if no one thought their work made any difference."

Obviously Robin has never worked in a typical office environment. This is a GREAT example of the theoretical framework which he uses to model the world being grossly wrong and honestly is a great example of why no-one should be allowed a PhD in ANY social science without having spent at least 5 years in at least 3 different communities, jobs, and industries.

"I'd like to see a study confirming that. The Internet is more addictive than television and I highly suspect it drains more life-force."

On average, Americans spend far more hours watching TV than using the Internet. Obviously Eliezer's sample-set is severely biased when he makes causal statements about what's addictive. People who basically live on the internet will find that people THEY know are more addicted to internet than to TV.

Well... personally, I've observed the Internet to be far more addictive than TV; I've observed that in others as well (offline). I suppose you could argue that I don't meet the sort of person who would find TV more addictive than the Internet.

I also think you ought to spell out what sort of evidence you've personally observed that contradicts what part of Robin's statement, considering the overall vehemence of your reply. You've seen... people doing the exact same work? People being paid even though no one thinks their work makes any difference? How do you know?

Yeah Michael, what Eliezer said.

Well, they won't be doing numerically identical pieces of work. Are you thinking of things like patronage and nepotism positions that exist solely to hand money to their holders? An auto company employee who comes to 'work' and sits at a desk doing nothing from 9 to 5 in order to collect a paycheck, which is offered because of the UAW, isn't contributing anything to the company or the economy, but his enrichment makes a difference to the union leaders, since he will provide union dues and a vote. Many people are in this category, but the most blatant ones are still only a small fraction of the population.

If you start to include positions like government-subsidized social services jobs with nil or negative effects on recipients, people providing medicine that has nil or negative effect on health, people working in subsidized private industries (agriculture subsidies, etc) that destroy wealth on net, office politics positions, organized crime, legal versions of same (telemarketers selling bogus products or tricking people into signing harmful contracts), and similar categories you could wind up with a majority of the population in many countries. But if by 'making a difference to someone' Robin just means that an employer benefits from having the employee on staff, most such jobs wouldn't qualify.

On TV addiction:

"Recent studies have found that 2 to 12 percent of viewers see themselves as addicted to television: they feel unhappy watching as much as they do, yet seem powerless to stop themselves."

-- NY Times

"On average, people have 35 to 40 hours a week of discretionary time and spend about 21 hours near the tube. The [University of Maryland] study found that the happiest people estimated they tuned in to television 18.9 hours a week. For the least happy, it was nearly 25 hours a week.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Social Indicators Research, is based on the General Social Survey, with public opinion data from nearly 40,000 people ages 18 to 64, as well as time-use diaries that detail how people spend their days.

The study controlled for differences in education, income, age, race, sex and marital status. On average, the down-and-out reported an extra 5.6 hours of tube time a week, compared with their happiest counterparts."

-- WaPo

On Internet addiction:

"In the Stanford study — which Aboujaoude said is the first large-scale, random-sample epidemiological one ever done — the researchers conducted a nationwide household survey and interviewed 2,513 adults. Because no generally accepted screening instrument exists for problematic Internet use, the researchers developed their questions by extrapolating from other compulsive and addictive conditions. The researchers found that 68.9 percent were regular Internet users, which is consistent with previous studies, and that:

° 13.7 percent (more than one out of eight respondents) found it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time. . . .Aboujaoude said he found most concerning the numbers of people who hid their nonessential Internet use or used the Internet to escape a negative mood, much in the same way that alcoholics might. “In a sense, they’re using the Internet to ‘self-medicate,’” he said."

-- Stanford Med School

So let's say maybe 12% for TV and 14% for the net. Close. They seem equally addicting - for the unhappy! - thus I'll say that there is just a certain percentage of people who are unhappy and use either the TV or the net to "self-medicate" their unhappiness. One is not more addictive than the other per se.

However it does seem as if there may be a niche for a cognitive therapeutical practice here!

There are two new articles related to group sizes at Life With Alacrity, and I'm working on a third that is about how participation inequality of large groups interacts with small group limits in a fashion to have similar problems happen on larger scales as groups change in size.

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