Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fungibility and the Loss of Demandingness

Certain items demand a great deal from their owners. Significant non-monetary costs must be incurred in order to locate, choose, use, and care for these goods.  Knowledge, aesthetic sensitivity, carefulness, work, membership in an insider community (as with black-market goods or single-tree tea), openness to experience, and even pain (as with tattoos) may be demanded in order to own these items; not just anyone with money may own them.

In return, many of these items - more than items that have only monetary costs - increase the value of their owners. Not only does their ownership and use signal carefulness, expertise, and other values, but owning and using these items actually does increase the owner's value to his group, realized in terms of sociometric status

From objects as well as work, we want not only surface-level "use" or money, but we also want to increase our own value, and we want positive and reliable feedback about this increasing value in ourselves. To the extent that our objects are purchasable and usable by anyone in exchange for the ultimate fungible commodity (money), with few non-monetary costs, they are incapable of increasing our value and delivering reliable messages that they increase our value.

This last point explains an important exception to the overjustification effect. Ordinarily, to the extent that people are given extrinsic rewards for a desirable behavior, they will tend to engage in the behavior less in the absence of rewards, indicating less enjoyment of the behavior. The important exception is if the extrinsic rewards provide reliable, positive information about the self. One interpretation of this exception is that a major desire of humans, not satisfied by extrinsic rewards, is to increase their value and track this increase of value.

The intuition that demandingness creates value is illustrated in two other contexts. First, the longevity of nineteenth-century religious communes has been found to correlate with their degree of demandingness from their members, supporting a costly signaling theory of religious memes. Costly signaling here is not "mere signaling" but, rather, a solution to the problem of how to actually solve complex coordination problems and increase value delivered to all members. Similarly, organizations that use hazing are often of long duration and excite substantial loyalty, supporting the theory that demandingness can create value in this context. Second, demandingness within relationships can increase bonding, a fact that is often explained as an application of the consistency bias, but which is probably more properly seen in light of costly signaling as a solution to a coordination problem.

To sum up, the modern economy is primarily composed of things and services available for money, ratcheting to allow fewer and fewer non-monetary costs. When things are available for money, anyone can acquire them; this dilutes the information about the self that can be contained in the ownership. Similarly, a major trend in the labor market is toward fungible skills that anyone can supply, reducing opportunities for virtuosity and positive information about the self through work. Everything is increasingly available for money, except, I will argue, a major thing we all want to buy that gives us the feeling of meaning: our own value and specialness. 

This is not to say that money has no value to signal about the self. Those without adequate money may experience their deprivation as negative messages about the self. However, someone with adequate money is less likely to get enough positive messages about the self from simply spending money. He will increasingly desire,and increasingly fail to find, outlets that genuinely let him build his value - although expensive illusions about this, as well as escapes from this dilemma, are plentifully supplied.

Work and Virtuosity in the EEA

In the environments in which humans adapted, everyone would have spent a hundred thousand hours doing something demanding that added value to the self in the eyes of the tribe. Everyone would have realized the pleasure of virtuosity. 

None of the ancestral patterns involved email or swivel chairs or levers to pull on machines or cash registers. These modern items of work infrastructure do not invite virtuosity - in fact, they are specifically designed to obviate the need for it! When Robin Hanson suggests that work can be pleasurable enough to give meaning to life, he points to a sushi chef - an example of virtuosity that is so rare and desirable as to be oversupplied even now. How many options for virtuosity in work are actually available in the modern economy? And, more ominously, how many will be available in the future, given present trends? Given that this kind of demanded virtuosity is actively pleasurable, it seems likely that these skills will increasingly turn into costly hobbies, rather than the kind of work one can expect to be paid to do.

The non-fungible skills demanded by EEA work (gathering, hunting, cooking, creating goods and tools and collectible proto-money) and a decreasing fraction of modern work are, in my model, analogous to the non-monetary costs of goods. They are examples of rewarded demandingness. 

I will now turn to certain examples of phenomena and classes of goods in an attempt to hermeneutically flesh out the problem of decreasing rewarded demandingness.

The Aspiration Index

A significant proportion of food that is purchased is not eaten, but rather goes bad and is thrown away. The proportion of a particular food that meets this fate may be seen as its aspiration index - the degree to which it is purchased for self-signaling, for the positive information about the self and future self value it seems to provide at the time of purchase. The more difficulty involved in preparing and eating the food - while still appealing to people unlikely to prepare it - the higher its aspiration index. 

However, if kale or parsnips or rappini are thrown away after going bad, they have failed to add value to the purchaser's life through demandingness. They have demanded something from the purchaser, but because of his failure to provide it, the vegetables have provided only the momentary illusion of adding value to life.

For modern sedentary people, exercise equipment - treadmills, running shoes, punching bags, gym memberships - likely exhibit a high aspiration index. Purchasable for only money, they nonetheless demand high non-monetary costs in their use, costs that frequently go unpaid by the purchaser. Their value is not realized, because their demandingness is not of the sufficiently alluring sort to entice the purchaser to sacrifice to it. 

Musical instruments, books, and language-learning software are examples of items available to purchase for money whose non-monetary costs frequently go unpaid by purchasers, resulting in a forfeiture of their value.

It is likely that when items with significant non-monetary costs are available for mere money - their purchase does not involve substantial non-monetary costs - their aspiration index will be higher, and their value will more frequently be forfeited. However, I also suspect that there are many cues that affect the investment of non-monetary costs, social and otherwise, and finding out exactly what these cues are would likely be a rewarding field of study. Unfortunately, the nearby field of the cues motivating people to buy things has received far more study.

The Kitchen Knife and the Pen

Where do Americans get their knives with which to chop food? What kind of knives do they buy? How do they maintain these knives?

Most kitchen knives are purchased at retail outlets, like most goods. These knives are made primarily of stainless steel, a rust-proof alloy that does not demand much from its user. You can leave it in the sink overnight and it will just sit there, not rusting, shining up at you damply. Unfortunately, stainless steel is  a poor material in terms of taking a sharp edge from sharpening. Indeed, it seems that over the past few decades, Americans have largely lost the skill of sharpening knives at all in their home kitchens. Most home kitchens I have visited contain dull stainless-steel knives, from the cheap knives John Thorne has accused of having "been made to look like a knife rather than to be one" to expensive Wusthofs. 

Knives have become easy, non-demanding, non-functional, and sad. They no longer demand much from their users, but they certainly don't deliver much. I suspect this is why vegetables are increasingly available pre-cut in plastic packages, obviating the need for the home cook to slice them up at all. Vegetables themselves demand less from the cook, simultaneously decreasing the reward the cook can receive.

Carbon steel knives, however, demand significant searching, care, and maintenance from their owners - and reward these demands with the pleasure of cutting and the promise of increasing virtuosity. You are unlikely to find a carbon steel knife at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. To get one, you might have to find the cluttered little shop in Chinatown that sells to restaurants, or the internet equivalent. To choose one, you might have to know what different kinds of knives are for. Once purchased, you have to care for it scrupulously; it cannot be left wet in the sink for twenty minutes, much less overnight, without rusting at you accusingly. 

It will, however, take an extremely sharp edge, if you spend the time to sharpen it. Cutting with it is a project to be sought out specifically - pre-cut vegetables will seem a pathetic waste of the joy of cutting. Its sharpness, and your ability to maintain its sharpness, contributes directly to your value as a cook. 

The market, exemplified by the Bed, Bath, and Beyond I mentioned, removes near "pain" - non-monetary costs and demandingness - and renders items legible to the purchaser without culture, knowledge, or care. This greater fungibility - stores selling pictures of knives - harms the quality of life and the ability of people to increase their value.

Similarly, a fountain pen is a bit of a hassle to fill. The tiniest hassle. It takes a bit of knowledge and a bit of work. Disposable pens obviate the need for this hassle and seem like a great idea, especially since when everyone was using fountain pens, their refilling offered no particular positive information about the self. In the interest of reducing the pain of refilling, the market began to supply disposable pens almost exclusively. You will not find a refillable fountain pen in, say, Target.

Unfortunately, disposable pens were able to get much worse once nobody remembered fountain pens. Ball-point pens, the cheapest sort of disposable pen, require so much pressure that writing is uncomfortable. Pens with a fine felt tip and liquid ink are nice, but hardly something to bond with. 

Often the first time someone writes with a fountain pen, they are surprised at how easy and comfortable it is. All of a sudden, one's hand doesn't cramp from writing! The pain of refilling pens was replaced, insidiously, with the pain of writing with substandard pens. 

Now, a fountain pen is something to be specially located - and the ink as well. Again, a tiny amount of effort must be expended in learning to refill, and refilling, a fountain pen. But all this is rewarded in the greater writing pleasure - not to mention bonding with the object through all that exposure and effort, as with a carbon steel knife. 

A pattern has occurred in the fountain pen market as it shrunk: more and more fountain pens appear designed, not for use, but for pure, referent-less signaling value. The background culture's idea of a fountain pen seems to be something gold-plated, perhaps inlaid with diamonds for good measure, and an ornately engraved nib - and possibly there are more dollars spent on fountain pens decorated non-functionally with expensive (though fungible!) metals than on cheaper, more practical fountain pens designed for use. This is an example of the expansion of a market to be more monetary and less represented by non-monetary elites as consumers, explored in a later section.

The Hipster and the Connoisseur

An archetype of our age is the hipster, a person who is attracted to the obscure because it is obscure, because it is hard to find, obtain, and understand.

The mistake is to view hipsterdom as pure signaling. It invokes signaling, of course, but also the genuine, authentic search for value in genuineness and authenticity. The hipster is a person who is particularly alienated by the world of purely fungible culture. His music and books, his old "vintage" items, are more demanding, harder to find. But at the same time, he is made more interesting and valuable through what they demand from him. 

Similarly, a connoisseur (exemplified in Evan S. Connell's novel The Connoisseur) is a person who seeks out goods that demand something. They may not be had merely for money, but through seeking and discernment. It is not their price, but their authenticity and beauty, that give them value. 

The connoisseur reacts to the scarce, beautiful object in and of itself. The connoisseur does not talk merely about the price of his acquisition; to do so indicates he is not a true connoisseur. The difficult, challenging objects he seeks out pay his effort back. 

The Evolution of SWPL Retail

Certain businesses start out catering mostly to people interested in use rather than signaling - in purchasing difficult items that require substantial non-monetary wealth in order to use. They cater to a certain elite. 

Gradually, in part based on the strength of the very reliable signal set up by the starting population, a different crowd gets interested - one that lacks the non-monetary wealth to bring to the goods purchased, but that nonetheless desires the self-value that they seem to promise. The elite is limited in size, so as the business grows, it becomes more and more dependent upon (and caters to ) the aspirational, signaling crowd. Soon, Whole Foods is selling vegan organic rice crispy treats, soda, and pre-cut vegetables; REI is selling dubious athletic clothing in sizes as inflated as mainstream fashion. 

The value such businesses provide to the core elite, in the cases mentioned, is not destroyed; Whole Foods still sells good whole vegetables, and REI still sells good backpacking gear. But the aspiration index of goods and buyers has increased - they are purchased more and more for the positive messages about the purchaser they seem to provide, rather than for actual use and enjoyment at the object level. The aspirational user may become representative of the class.

The Fungibility of Human Relationships

As mentioned earlier, there has been a trend since the industrial revolution toward less investment in the specialized skills of workers - fewer butchers and artisans per capita, more factory workers and, later, Starbucks baristas. The trend has been for workers to become as fungible and empty of non-monetary investment as the goods they often sell. 

The fungibility of work, the reduction of demand for long-developed special skills, the impossibility of virtuosity in one's limited job, has made work less and less a source of reliable, positive information about the increasing value of the self - because it has ceased to truly improve people. But people still desire to work at what they love, and to improve themselves. The market will sell them the feeling of this, but will not commonly supply them with food in exchange for pursuing virtuosity.

Since no-fault divorce became ubiquitous and dating more short-term and informal, less has been demanded of us in romantic relationships. As with work, this has resulted in romantic relationships producing less happiness and being less rewarding than more demanding ones. Here is an area in which fungibility of people is particularly likely to degrade welfare.

Humans evolved to form pair bonds - a kind of ultimate non-fungibility. Mating for life is hard; co-evolved biological and cultural adaptations help make it possible to maintain this kind of demanding, rewarding relationship. The aspiration toward a lifetime pair bond is still present; it is not, however, matched by social institutions that might enable it. Marriage has become an aspirational good.

Perhaps even friendship and neighborliness have been rendered essentially fungible by increased mobility. To the extent that they have, they have probably also become less rewarding.

However, perhaps a great deal of lived, experienced specialness (non-fungibility), even in our environments of evolutionary adaptedness, has been an illusion that sufficiently abstract thinking reveals. Seeing through specialness that satisfied the ancients would be especially hard on moderns able to do so.

Education and Other Fashions

Compared to other goods, the monetary price of education has skyrocketed in recent decades. At the same time, its market share has expanded drastically. Just as ultramarathons have replaced boring old marathons as the elite test of endurance, graduate degrees have replaced bachelor's degrees as the elite degree of education.

Education, unlike most other goods or services, is mostly composed of messages about the self and of adding value to oneself, real or illusory. The monetary costs increase because it really is, to some degree, scarce. It distorts the overall market by being one of the few items for sale that actually stands a chance of increasing one's value to the tribe.

The demandingness of education, I argue, is part of what you're buying in money. There is a special premium for scarcity (such as Ivy League educations), but this premium is largely still paid in non-monetary costs (intelligence, preparation, work). However, through a lack of barriers (and even an attempt to remove barriers) on consumers, the education market has followed the predictable path of Whole Foods and REI - even at the elite end.

Moreover, as one of the only parts of the market that appears to offer the chance to genuinely, measurably add value to the self, it occupies a greater and greater share of the economy. Unfortunately, it cannot add as much value as it promises. The aspiration index of education is high and growing.

Education is becoming more like clothing. Since clothing has become more mass-produced and cheaper, hence requiring no skill to make, more effort has been put into choosing and buying it. Fashion might create the least value in individuals of any industry. Scarcity is expressed mostly in dollar value and necessarily non-functional addition of recognizably precious, but ultimately fungible, commodities, like gold or brand names.

There are a few non-monetary costs still involved in fashion. Retailers such as American Apparel retain elite status despite being relatively cheap in part because their clothing only comes in small sizes, and only looks good on skinny, healthy people. Elite bodies are demanded, but this is ultimately a superficial, deeply unsatisfying kind of value to have demanded from us. Make-up and fashion "knowledge" is replacing other knowledge as it seems to perceptibly add value to the self; unfortunately, this value is so superficial as to be ultimately unsatisfying. 

Escape from the Self

If reliable, positive information about the improving self is not available to help people feel valuable, people will seek escape from consciousness of their pathetic-feeling selves. A large share of this escape is provided by the entertainment industry, including entertainment electronics. Baumeister, in Escape from the Self, argues that alcoholism, masochism, spirituality, and even suicide are phenomena in which people attempt to escape from painful information about the self - a self that, by the way, has had to bear more of the weight of meaning than when other sources of meaning were commonly available. 

Fewer people are able to get positive, reliable information about their increasing values, and some are more sensitive to the emptiness of certain signals than others. I expect that those unable to get the desired, necessary information - unable to improve their value and feel it - will be more likely to seek out palliation and suicide gambles

How Do People Find Demandingness In Life?

Those who do not escape must find some source of demandingness in order to get information about their increasing value. Much money and effort is spent on competition, an explicit source of costly information about oneself, from athletics to chess. There is a guarantee of a winner and a loser in competitions; the loser's risk is what renders the winner's success valuable information about himself. Vicarious competition (through professional spectator sports) seems adequate for many. 

What I have termed "insight porn" provides important messages about the self and gives at least the feeling of improving one's value, through possessing a better, more compact model of the world and the kind of mind capable of understanding the insight.

Video games, especially massively multi-player games, demand and creatively reward virtuosity through systems of levels and achievements. To some degree, this may be providing a superstimulus, artificial version of increasing one's value; however, in another sense, people may get genuine sociometric status from their online gaming guild. This is unlikely to provide for one's bodily needs for food and shelter, however, so the benefits of improving one's value to the group may be in some ways illusory compared to their evolved function. In fact, gold farming - the excised monetary aspect of gameplay - is reviled and low in status, generally undertaken in poor countries (thanks to the fungibility of their labor with our own, and their lower upkeep costs).

What are the implications of this trend for the future? The desire to add value to oneself is the essence of our kind of social creature. Will people find ways to add value to themselves when everything is fungible, when perhaps anyone can modify himself at will? Or will they discover new and better ways to palliate this need?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Old Money: Evolutionary Economics and Biophobia in Social Sciences

Author's religious medallion, obverse. Religious endorsement, like government endorsement of fiat currency, may replace materials or labor as scarcity indicators as long as the behavior of others supports this illusion.

In 1898, Thorstein Veblen (of Veblen goods) published an essay on the question of why economics was not an evolutionary science. He referred not only to the biological evolution of human brains, but also (perhaps especially) to the processes by which systems evolve, including the evolution of items of culture.

Veblen mentions (I emphasize, in 1898, when Darwin's bones were scarcely dry) that scientists in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and ethnology must consider economics to be behind the times in its failure to adopt an evolutionary outlook on its problems. In 2012, we may still ask the same question of economics - why has it not become a field dominated by an evolutionary perspective? - but we must also ask what happened to the other social sciences to retard their adoption of a truly evolutionary perspective.

In their 1988 work on the evolutionary psychology of homicide, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson lament what they term the "biophobia" present in the social sciences in their day. Referring to the work of Margaret Mead in creating a myth of pure adaptability and cultural arbitrariness, they say:

What is of interest is how the myth fills a need for social scientists and commentators. It seems to demonstrate that our social natures are pure cultural artifacts, as arbitrary as the name of the rose, and that we can therefore create any world we want, simply by changing our "socialization practices." (This may sound a remarkably totalitarian vision, but it's not, you see, because the new, improved socialization practices will be designed by nice people with everyone's best interest at heart, and not by nasty, self-interested despots.) The social science that is used to legitimize this ideology can only be described as biophobic. [Emphasis in original.]

In 2002, Steven Pinker took up Daly & Wilson's cause in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Over a hundred years after Veblen asked why economics was so far behind the other social sciences in adopting an evolutionary perspective, Pinker was left to ask why those other social sciences, so evolutionarily modern in 1898, had dropped the thread in favor of socialization theory and other comfortable, common sense ideas Veblen might have dismissed as "spiritual stability."

Ten years later, the idea that humans have a specific, evolved nature that is unlikely to be changed by arbitrary cultural change is much more widely accepted. Critics of this theory tend to be those who do not like the implications that are drawn from it, rather than those with substantive objections to the theory itself. The most theoretical objection to evolutionary psychology is an allegation of reductionism; this, however, is misplaced.

What is beginning to be acknowledged is that just as human brains have evolved with a specific, genetically determined (though somewhat plastic) nature, items of human culture have also undergone evolutionary adaptation. (The evolution of cultural items may be seen as a special case of sexual selection: the most relevant part of the environment of adaptation is the brains and perceptions of conspecifics, within the constraints of material resources, as with chain letters and ships' rudders. Cultural items, like AGIs, would do well never to lose track of their base realities.) The adapted brain - not a blank slate - constrains, but does not fully specify, the kinds of cultural items that can evolve. To complicate matters more, items of evolved culture have formed a great deal of the relevant environment in which humans have biologically evolved.

Author's religious medallion, reverse.

Old Money

What would economics, the study of the production and exchange of goods (broadly defined), look like if it took a genuinely evolutionary approach to its problems?

A 2002 paper by Nick Szabo entitled "Shelling Out — The Origins of Money" is a thrilling example of how a non-reductive, biologically aware science of economics might approach problems. Szabo traces the appearance of proto-money into prehistory, concluding that the use of collectible items like shell necklaces allowed hunting, foraging groups to specialize in seasonal protein sources and exchange protein with other groups. One of the most exciting, useful observations in the paper relates to the features of proto-money. Collectible items valuable as tokens of exchange must be:

  1. More secure from accidential loss and theft. For most of history this meant carriable on the person and easy to hide.
  2. Harder to forge its value. An important subset of these are products that are unforgeably costly, and therefore considered valuable....
  3. This value was more accurately approximated by simple observations or measurements. These observations would have had more reliable integrity yet have been less expensive.
Szabo especially examines the second feature: difficulty of forgery. Collectible items that necessarily involve considerable human labor and time are particularly hard to forge. He explains how this feature might have caused flints to become the first proto-money:
There are many puzzling instances of useless or at least unused flints with homo sapiens. We have mentioned the unusable flints of the Clovis people. Culiffe discusses a European Mesolithic era find of hundreds of flints, carefully crafted, but which micrograph analysis reveals were never used for cutting.

Flints were quite likely the first collectibles, preceding special-purpose collectibles like jewelry. Indeed, the first flint collectibles would have been made for their cutting utility. Their added value as a medium of wealth transfer was a fortuitous side effect that enabled the institutions described in this article to blossom. These institutions, in turn, would have motivated the manufacture of special-purpose collectibles, at first flints that need have no actual use as cutting tools, then the wide variety of other kinds of collectibles that were developed by homo sapiens sapiens. [Citations omitted.]

The features Szabo identifies are all, he says, features of the metals and coins that have functioned as money, and the reserve commodities that have backed non-fiat currencies. Further, since the advent and widespread use of fiat currency,
It is no coincidence that markets in rare objects and unique artwork — usually sharing the attributes of collectibles described above — have enjoyed a renaissance during the last century. One of our most advanced high-tech marketplaces, EBay, is centered around these objects of primordial economic qualities. The collectibles market is larger than ever, even if the fraction of our wealth invested in them is smaller than when they were crucial to evolutionary success. Collectibles both satisfy our instinctive urges and remain useful in their ancient role as a secure store of value.
Importantly, when the scarcity of items became forgeable (e.g., glass beads introduced to tribes unfamiliar with glass manufacturing), those capable of mass-manufacturing apparent costliness had a material advantage over those who had not yet adapted to detect this sort of forgery. Glass beads "were very popular wherever European colonialists encountered Neolithic or hunter-gatherer cultures," says Szabo.
Author's hand-knitted socks, made from factory-produced yarn.

Szabo's non-biophobic, evolutionarily-aware view of money, with room for both biological and cultural evolution, gives us a new way to see money. In particular, it gives us a new perspective on the labor theory of value.

Mainstream economics generally dismisses the labor theory of value as a fallacy, a cognitive bias to be eradicated (but which stubbornly, stupidly refuses eradication). This is of a piece with the similar dismissal of the consideration of sunk costs as a departure from rationality to be eradicated in rational minds.

Just as the evolutionary, game-theoretical understanding of human cognition has helped (some of) us see the point of the sunk costs "fallacy" (it helps facilitate commitment, which, like Timeless Decision Theory, though apparently irrational, improves welfare), Szabo's evolution-aware account helps us see the function of the labor theory of value: it facilitates the creation and use of hard-to-forge proto-money by inextricably connecting it to the man-hour. Prior to stationary agriculture, populations were relatively stable, and an hour of human effort required relatively stable inputs (including the care and nutrition required to raise and maintain an adult human). Agriculture increased populations, but also increased the opportunity cost of making labor-intensive, decorative items. The man-hour therefore has had a relatively stable value in real-world inputs that made it an ideal basis for proto-currency; sensitivity to this basis would benefit individuals.

Compare the two worldviews. In the mainstream economic view, the sunk costs fallacy and labor theory of value are fallacies that stubbornly resist change. To the evolutionary worldview, these "fallacies" are basic, functional realities of evolved human minds, unlikely to change, that systems must adapt to accommodate if they are to be successful.

In this latter view, mass production is a problem for consumers as well as for workers. Branding and other shenanigans have replaced genuine scarcity in markets for goods. Humans likely have an innate desire to acquire valuable, proto-money-like objects; we likely also have an innate pleasure in creating such goods. Globalization and mass production allows the lesser-valued labor of worse-off others to fulfill our needs for handmade goods, while turning the production of handmade goods into an expensive, commodified hobby for the well off.

Author's hand-spun yarn, with factory-produced hand spindle and roving.

Finally, with the advent of mass-produced food and related technologies like public education and daycare, humans themselves have become items of mass production. I have joked on Twitter that SWPLs think they are creating artisanal humans; paleo diets, along with free-range, unschooling, and the fetishization of the traditional and the offline, are ways we react to the extensive forgery of value in our cultures and ourselves. Fewer of us sing, make music, and dance; more time is spent in offices and less making shell necklaces. The welfare loss is best made apparent with an evolutionary view of economics, which might actually explain why this view has not obtained currency.

It's Full of Shells

The late Seth Roberts laid out a loopy, ambitious, and thoroughly fun theory about how we may have ended up using shells as proto-money - explaining, along the way, the evolutionary meaning of procrastination, the economic importance of gifts, and the scientific importance of decoration. "How Economics Shaped Human Nature: A Theory of Evolution" deserves to be read alongside Szabo's "Shelling Out."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

How Innovation is Like Genetic Mutation

Our system of intellectual property, especially the patent system for inventions, prioritizes innovation above other contributions to culture. The patent system (appropriately referred to, I think, as "intellectual monopoly" rather than intellectual property) attempts to allow an innovator to capture the profits that flow from his innovation, largely ignoring the contributions of those who copy and use the technology. 

The conception of copying and using an innovation as "theft" is fundamentally wrongheaded. In practice, throughout human history, copying and use (with slight modifications) is how technology has progressed. Use and copying with modification contributes more value than mere innovation, but is not rewarded (and is actually punished) by our current intellectual monopoly scheme. An analogy to biological evolution is apt: innovation provides the raw material upon which selection (copying and use) acts, in the same way that genetic mutation provides the raw material upon which natural selection acts. We would not expect large amounts of genetic mutation caused by radiation to result in better and better ecosystems; quite the opposite. Genetic mutations are mostly harmful, and even mutations that are successful for an organism can disrupt an entire ecosystem. Radical changes to the ecosystem must follow a major genetic change in any participant organism.

Proponents of the value of innovation would argue that unlike radiation, human innovators can think about the implications of an innovation, designing only those that would result in a beneficial change. This is, I argue, fundamentally hubristic. The ability of humans, even the smartest humans, to mentally project changes into the future is more limited than humans generally acknowledge. The most salient consequences of historical innovations were generally not widely anticipated. 

The success of an innovation is often not apparent at the moment the innovation is conceived. Only in an environment in which appropriate supportive technologies have developed, and after long use, can any particular innovation be considered successful. (See, e.g., the development of the rudder over the past two millennia.)

The problem of the failure to project the effects of innovation has been especially visible in the case of the design of human societies. Utopian societies of the 19th century failed to have an average longevity of even a single human generation, despite the careful planning and effort of concerned individuals. 

A related problem is the size and interconnectedness of modern systems. Many separate ecosystems adapting in different environments would offer some hope of hitting on stable solutions. A single, giant ecosystem, in which everything is interconnected and innovations spread throughout the system immediately, offers much less hope of happening upon a stable solution. Our megasystem limps along, gathering an ever-increasing load of dangerous innovations, and will do so until it no longer can. 

This is not to say that simpler, stabler systems are necessarily better. They are frequently quite awful. Interestingly, however, removing the salient awfulness of a particular simple system often (imperceptibly, over generations) also removes whatever was beneficial about the system. 

There is a fundamental problem with our extremely complex system. Not only has it failed to provide decent lives for its human citizens, but it is not even on a course likely to provide decent lives in the future. Our almost religious focus on innovation as a solution to our problems ignores the manner in which change occurs in large, complex system. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Life, Pain, and Revealed Preference

Everyone alive suffers, yet most living people seem to be glad to be alive. Few commit suicide, and death is feared by most.

How do we know if the pain of life is made up for by other factors? Introspection is a popular method (especially what I call the "imaginary survey," in which one imagines people's responses to being asked whether they are glad to be born). But introspection is also flawed in terms of accuracy even as to how well one's own life has gone, and introspection does not help us compare the suffering of one person to the happiness of another. 

I have proposed that we look at sources of data other than introspection to figure out how much people really value or lament life and its pains and pleasures (see Mathematics of Misery, Born Obligated, What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality? and Blind to the Downside). We could, I argue, look at how people act, what they buy, eat, smoke, and do. Rather than asking them about their preferences, their preferences might be revealed to us through their behavior.

A recent episode of the Radiolab podcast examined the pain scale used by doctors - a scale to measure a person's pain, from "no pain" to "worst pain imaginable." The podcast reveals the subjectivity of the scale and its inadequacy for making medical judgments; an interviewee imagines the "worst pain imaginable" to be the pain of being dragged behind a pickup truck to one's death, and imagines her pain to be about a third of that; a "3" on the pain scale, subjectively severe and interfering with her life, but dismissed by her doctor.

Her father, a doctor, recommends she report her pain as an "8" in order to be taken seriously. More interestingly, he suggests a more revealing pain scale: one that asked what sufferers would be willing to do to get rid of their pain. Get a really bad haircut, perhaps? Accept a reduced lifespan?

When I was younger, I suffered from severe migraines. In the early days of the internet, I read about trepanation and it seemed like a live option for at least two years; it was my beloved fantasy. A few days into a bad migraine when I was 19, I took the train to Rites of Passage and had a large needle, and then a ring, inserted into the flesh of my navel, hoping it might relieve the pain. (It didn't, though it did take my mind off of it.) Clearly, the revealed preference of a trade-off for pain reflects the subjective value for the person at both ends: I might have been experiencing extremely severe pain to consider piercing my skull and my body, or I might just not disvalue bodily envelope violations very much. However, data about the actual choices of thousands of people would give us evidence of the relative value of different choices for large numbers of people; while not perfect, it would be better than mere introspection.

So is life a burden, or a blessing? What are people willing to do for a longer lifespan, compared to what they're willing to do in order to die? 

In the United States, around 36,000 people successfully commit suicide every year, despite the fact that suicide is illegal (on pain of resuscitation and incarceration in a mental hospital), risky, difficult, and painful, and despite the additional fact that it is illegal for others to help in any way. Worldwide, over a million people successfully commit suicide every year.

Cryonic preservation represents a chance to be reborn; one must still die, but one's brain and perhaps body are preserved in the hope of one day being reanimated. Cryonics is legal and (since it takes place after death) painless, and it is legal for others to help one achieve cryonic preservation. Cryonic preservation costs around $150,000, considerably less than the cost to raise an average American child to age 18 (not including college). In spite of this, only about a thousand people have ever signed up for cryonic preservation. The number of people who have ever signed up for cryonics in the history of the world is the same as the number who die from suicide in the United States every ten days.

While people may go to great lengths to postpone death, they do not seem to reveal a particular preference for a chance to be born again. Indeed, while life in the abstract seems to be of supreme importance, other factors can be shown to drastically outweigh the supposedly sacred value of life. For instance, studies suggest that castration may extend male lifetimes by decades, yet castrating oneself or one's son seems unthinkable, even with the lifespan enhancement effects in mind. While life may be valuable, it seems that sexual capacity, gender expression, and reproductive capacity are revealed as much more important than life simpliciter. 

The fact that so many people are willing to take great risks to end their lives in order to escape the bad parts of life, and so few are willing to make serious sacrifices to be born again or drastically extend life, is evidence that life is not always a blessing, and is frequently, observably, a burden. We should continue to investigate data to determine the lived reality of the value of life and pain, and should incorporate this knowledge into our reproductive ethics. Reproduction can no longer be seen as a purely innocent endeavor, but must be recognized as a very serious gamble with the life of an innocent being.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trying to See Through: A Unified Theory of Nerddom

This was written in 2012! You may be interested in Weaponized Sacredness on egregores, preference falsification, and preference cascades.

There is a single characteristic, I argue, that defines and unites the cognitive community that you and I share if you are reading this (the community of nerds). These days we often identify as rationalists, skeptics, or atheists, interested in cognition and cognitive biases; we are likely to eat LSD at Burning Man. We read analytic philosophy, science fiction, and LessWrong. We are intelligent, socially awkward, and heavily male. Is there a good name for that?

Lucid Dream

Intelligence and social awkwardness partially explain many of the patterns of our community, but neither is the characteristic I have in mind. This characteristic may be explained by analogy to lucid dreaming (incidentally, a common interest of our members). Dreams ordinarily fool us; despite their incoherence, we accept them as fully real while we are in them. 

With effort, over time, you can get in the habit of performing "reality checks" during waking life: trying to push your fingers through solid surfaces, perhaps, or to breathe with airways closed. When asking, "am I dreaming?" and testing coherence becomes enough of an aspect of everyday reality, you may start performing reality checks in dreams, too. If you are successful, your reward will be an insight denied to most people: knowledge of the fact that you are dreaming.

Dreams demonstrate that our brains (and even rat brains) are capable of creating complex, immersive, fully convincing simulations. Waking life is also a kind of dream. Our consciousness exists, and is shown particular aspects of reality. We see what we see for adaptive reasons, not because it is the truth. Nerds are the ones who notice that something is off - and want to see what's really going on.

Our People

Communal belief - social reality - and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses. 

Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists - those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality - are happiest.

There is no difference in IQ between the sexes - on average. It is only at the high and low ends of the distribution that sex differences show up, with males more likely than females to exhibit very high or very low IQ. The trait of being oriented toward social and sacred reality, however, does likely vary between the sexes on average. Females are more religious than males, and more oriented toward communal belief and social reality. At the extremes, this sex difference is likely even more apparent (as with autism). Members of our community, I argue, select in by being high on the trait of seeing through social/sacred illusions; or, to put it another way, low on the trait of perceiving social/sacred reality. This explains the drastic male skew of our sex ratio better than intelligence.

Recursion and self-reference are uniting themes in our community. We are constantly trying to jump out of ourselves to look at ourselves. Our predilections for abstraction on the one hand, and psychedelic drugs on the other, feed our addiction to insight - to understanding new things about the understander. We do not smoke marijuana just to laugh and eat brownie batter, but for the front-row seats it gives us on our own cognition. We desire insight, but also meta-insight. Because of this multi-layered awareness, we have a complicated relationship with ambiguity: awareness of it, and conflicting desires to embrace it and to stamp it out (as if such a thing were possible). We are aware that information is present on more than one level of abstraction (or sincerity); some of us play the game and communicate on multiple levels at once, and others hold out for legible progress through sincerity.

Our culture's fascination with "meta-" - seeing the next level of abstraction, applying principles to themselves - is identical with this seeing-through trait. Many nominal members of our community have a hard time with this, because they are not true cognitive members of our community. They think of "meta" as when you watch Doctor Horrible at Monster House while dressed as Doctor Horrible characters. That's fine for them, but I think it's important to distinguish between the actual cognitive bases of our community, and the cultural confusion that comes from our culture's over-inclusiveness. 

Science fiction has united our culture for human generations, because it has been a reliable source of insight porn. Philip K. Dick's stories deliver heavy, refined doses of insight, for instance. But there is another layer of something that calls itself science fiction, designed to appeal to a broader audience than the insight-addicted core members, that merely recycles the tropes of science fiction literature and offers no real insight reward. Why are so many of us in love with Julian Jaynes even though it's batshit insane and obviously wrong? Because it's satisfying, amazing science fiction: insight porn that delivers. The fact of its wrongness does not reduce the pleasure it provides, any more than the fictional nature of a lateral thinking puzzle makes it less fun. 

We are aware that we are embodied beings with egos, but we are constantly trying to get around this - all the while realizing, at another level, that we can never truly lose our embodied perspective or think with something other than our evolved brains. Layers of self-glorifying self-deprecation illustrate our complicated relationship with ourselves. 

We are likely to have started out socially awkward - failing to automatically perceive all the social subtleties that our normal cohort noticed instinctively. Some of us have figured out social belonging using parts of our brain not adapted for this purpose; but most of us experience the normal human ache for social belonging, friendship, bonding, and sex, even more so if we have been unlucky in securing it. 

But our attraction to each other is not just an animal desire for company.

We realize the limitations of our individual monkey brains. We wonder if, by linking our monkey brains up with other monkey brains, we might form a Super Brain capable of insight unavailable to us as individuals. We long for not just any old community, but an epistemic community. 

A lot of us get stuck in traps. We become aware of a powerful insight (atheism, feminism, conspiracy theories) and begin to think it explains all of reality. We commit to our hard-won but limited set of insights until they calcify, protecting us from the trauma (and the pleasure) of further insights.

Many of us become heavily invested in already being right, and in others being wrong. This limits our ability to understand the world, since the world contains myriad beings who are all wrong in fascinating ways, and no beings who see only the pure truth. The folklorist Linda Degh inspired me with her writing on the "Apollo Moon Landing Hoax" conspiracy theory; to see her study the belief as folklore, rather than merely condemn it as factually incorrect, seemed like a fertile approach. To move toward reality, it is more effective to study and understand a strange belief than to reject it without study. Examining strange beliefs may be the lucid-dream reality check we need to examine our own normal-seeming beliefs. The most satisfying and useful insight is meta-insight: insight about our own cognitive processes.

The Sad State of Insight Porn

Huge segments of the background human culture cater to stimulating the humor reward circuit; not so for the closely related but distinct insight reward circuit. "Insight porn," to the extent that it exists, is of marginal cultural importance compared to humor, and is generally of much lower quality. Puzzles, mystery stories, perhaps even political commentary, trigger the insight reward circuit in a degraded way; even the lowest pattern-recognition games are capable of it. But its market share is a tiny fraction of that of comedy. We are deprived of art that could satisfy our desires. We must look to each other, and to the world, to satisfy our curiosity, boredom, and confusion with sweet insight. 

Why should it be that art catering to humor is more plentiful and of higher quality than art catering to the insight reward circuit? There is a clear humor sex difference, with men producing more humor (and expected to produce more humor) and women consuming more humor (and expecting to consume more humor). Humor may have implications as a mating quality indicator. Insight is more dangerous, and as I have argued, there may be sex differences in the orientation toward this kind of insight. Unlike humor, women aren't, as a group, especially interested in puzzles and insights; men are both the main producers and the main consumers of insight art like chess problems and strategic games. Humor has been a good characteristic for selection to act on; it is relatively safe and a good indicator of the quality of one's mind. Insight is not so safe, and may even be an indicator against cooperativeness (contrary to the adaptive value of religion, for instance). This may explain why there are dozens of comedy clubs in Los Angeles, but not a single club where one can go to solve lateral thinking puzzles with masters of the genre (if you know of any, please hook me up). Humor can even inoculate us against threatening ideas, such as evolution and religion.  

It is a great thrill to be epistemically pushed off of your reality - to have the universe drop out beneath you, like a carnival ride. We may not exactly believe extraordinary claims, such as the claim that the Dark Ages did not take place, but it is exciting and moving to think how weak and indirect our knowledge of such things truly is. 

In some ways, the domain of visual art has done a better job than the domain of science in promoting the nerd value of seeing through social/sacred illusions. For centuries, art and science were on similar paths, accumulating insights, undergoing paradigm shifts: infant proportions and perspective in art, say, and heliocentrism and germ theory of disease in science. Over the past hundred years, art has endured many iterations of waking up, seeing itself, and eating itself, from cubism to urinals-as-art; science, however, is barely entering the first cycle of meta-science, of examining the implementation of its methods with its own methods. 

Severe mental illness is so common among serious visual artists that it's practically a job qualification; it's rare in the sciences (though less rare in abstract math and philosophy). Of course there are good reasons for this, but the selection effect is cognitively important. Science has done a better job than art (and marginally better than math and philosophy) at protecting itself from radically different ways of thinking, hence insights about itself. 

False Insight as Hypnosis

The popularity of the viral political documentary Zeitgeist: The Movie illustrates that insight porn, properly pitched to the sophistication of the viewer, can have almost hypnotic power. The techniques used to create the illusion of insight in this film may seem rudimentary and clumsy to us, but they are sophisticated enough to trigger the sensation of a major breakthrough in those with less jaded (well, sophisticated) insight-detection mechanisms. Having access to insight just one level up from one's listeners - not too many levels of abstraction up for them to grasp - is a powerful tool. You can see why the ability would exist; our insight obsession has just gone off the rails, perhaps, into superstimulus land. 

The most ubiquitous trick in Zeitgeist is the use of simple pictures to make statements sound more truthful. Though the pictures presented are not probative of anything, their mere presence makes statements feel more like reached-for insights. This technique is used throughout, but nowhere more shamelessly than when Jesus' crown of thorns is revealed to be...solar flares. (At this point technically you have to drink.)

Other than the picture-truthiness trick, the documentary skillfully uses abstraction and far-mode inductions to produce the feeling of insight in naive users. The narrator (aided by illustrations) identifies similarities between past religions (often too quickly to read), attempting to reduce them to patterns. These taxonomied myths are described and owned by the narrator (and, presumably, the viewer), who is now above them in status. Satellite photos give the same impression of abstract understanding. Clips of old movies depicting religious events provide comic relief, emphasizing the superiority of the abstract view presented in the documentary over the silly, obviously incorrect specifics imagined years ago. Simple statements ("This is the Sun.") hypnotize the viewer so that more controversial statements can sneak in. Levels of abstraction are abruptly switched, invoking confusion hungry for resolution. The known and the unknown are combined to produce the feeling of insight in the viewer; if the mood is set right and the right illustration is being projected, an alleged mistranslation can feel like the deepest mystery resolved. When the scary, nasty forces of evil are introduced, near-mode fear is induced with threatening loud noises. A word or phrase is repeated ("there was an explosion") until it is divorced from context and seems more likely to have the meaning the filmmakers desire us to take from it than the meaning we would normally take from it. 

Jesus taught in parables, a bit like lateral thinking puzzles. He didn't simply say "here is the rule guys" - he told a whole story from which you were supposed to make not-always-obvious connections, and he outright admitted that the stories were capable of interpretation on multiple levels. The study of Talmud presents opportunities for complex insights within its intricate logical structure (this is true, though somewhat less true, of the study of law). Insight porn does not have to be true to be effective; it merely has to be geared to the sophistication of its audience, producing insights of the right size. Any given insight may be illusion; reality is best served when we are skeptical of each new insight. 

We have learned to glorify insight itself. If that is our policy, we must avoid clinging to any particular insight or truth. All must be fair game for our hungry insight addictions to feed on. It is painful to have one's calcified insights challenged (as alluded to earlier regarding conspiracy theories), but by belonging to the cognitive community of people like us, don't we consent to this threat of upheaval? We may properly pity the rest of humanity so much that we don't interfere with their healthy, comfortable fixed beliefs, but shouldn't our charity evaporate when we remember that they govern and control us based on their silly sacrednesses? 

The child in the Emperor's New Clothes is one of us. He is most likely autistic - most children, even at a very young age, can feel the social sacredness and act accordingly (perhaps even dogs) - but not this child. It is amazing that the story is preserved. But its form is so neat and tidy, this old tale - it lets us deal with fear and uncertainty surrounding our vague awareness of the social falsity. Does the child find any epistemic peers who agree? The comforting myth is that if one person points it out, the error will become obvious to all and be corrected. More likely, the child is shouted down or executed. We are children calling to each other - in a dog whistle, often, so the bigger group isn't motivated to discipline us. 


Second Addendum: In Which the Author's Attitude Toward Insight Porn is Clarified

This post has gotten around! I have noticed that my tendency to use dysphemisms for things I like has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding - that there is something inherently wrong with "insight porn." On the contrary, I think what I am calling "insight porn" includes the best of human culture.

First, the concern I have with the poorer sorts of insight porn is not that they promise wisdom and fail to deliver, but simply that they are not appropriate for people on the high end of the intelligence/curiosity distribution. Second, my problem, if I have one, is not with insight porn itself; what I have is a suspicion for the feeling of insight in general.

The feeling of mirth (a reaction to humor) is, the authors of Inside Jokes argue, a reward-system response to the detection of a contradiction in one's mental space: one of the premises one had mentally committed to is found to be incorrect. It is the detection of a misfit. Insight, on the other hand, involves the detection of a fit - the detection of a pattern that allows the compression of information previously requiring more representational space. (This hypothesis is considered with regard to music in Nicholas Hudson's paper "Musical beauty and information compression: Complex to the ear but simple to the mind?")

Epistemically speaking, humor is a much safer route than insight to correct thinking. The feeling of humor detects a problem that is unlikely to not be a problem; unfortunately, insight is likely to provide only the illusion of a better, more elegant model of the world. While what I have dysphemistically called insight porn has inherent value in providing the feeling of insight, we should be more suspicious of the feeling of insight as representing greater wisdom or a more elegant, more accurate model of the moving parts of the world. Insight leaps often do provide more accurate, more elegant models of the world, as Hudson points out in the paper previously linked with regard to Darwin, Einstein, and others. But a person who has spend a great deal of his life having the feeling of insight may or may not have a more accurate, more elegant model of the world than someone who has more rarely experienced the feeling of insight. Caution is needed.


Addendum: Some Items of Insight Porn

A collection of insight porn operating at a fairly high level. This list does not distinguish between items which I believe give true insight into reality and those which merely provide the sensation of insight without an improved understanding of reality. Such a distinction may be relevant for other values, but not for the value of triggering the reward circuit I describe.

We rely on others familiar with alien domains to pass us the best stuff from their domains.

  • Julian Jaynes
  • Jean Baudrillard
  • the study of cognitive bias
  • evolutionary psychology, e.g. Daly & Wilson
  • simulationism (back to Descartes)
  • Bladerunner and the questioning of memories
  • Philip K. Dick, especially short stories
  • atheism, Higher Criticism, and religious studies
  • Talmud (Torah & commentaries, living formal domain)
  • Ribbonfarm
  • study of conspiracy theories, e.g. Moon Landing Hoax, Phantom Time Hypothesis
  • folklore (Linda Degh, V. Propp, Dan VanArsdale)
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Michael Swanwick (esp. Bones of the Earth)
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • phenomenology
  • lateral thinking puzzles
  • "Synchronicity" (Jung)
  • The Aquatic Ape
  • Roy Baumeister (Meanings of Life, social function of consciousness)
  • contrarianism (insight in part from noticing patterns in belief of others)
  • William Gibson
  • Neil Stephenson
  • Walter Gieseking
  • Monk, Coltrane, Miles Davis
  • lucid dreaming
  • Philippe Rochat's Others In Mind
  • Wisconsin Death Trip (Lesy)
  • Radiolab
  • marijuana
  • ketamine
  • Joseph Cornell
  • Freud's Interpretation of Dreams
  • Infinite Jest
  • John Thorne (e.g. Outlaw Cook)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Old Ways

Human technology, like organisms themselves, evolved gradually along with human populations to solve problems posed by different environments. Successful technologies solved problems relating to nutrition, group cohesion, securing territory, and surviving the elements, among many others. 

It is unlikely that the humans who used and gradually changed technologies throughout the ages were aware of all of the functions of their cultural package - any more than we are aware of all of the functions of our cultural package today. A cultural package would reproduce itself by working well enough to be passed down to another generation of humans. Conservatism among simple societies prevented dangerous innovations from destroying the carefully evolved cultural package, but rare successful innovations would occasionally become part of the cultural package. 

Over the past several thousand years, civilization has independently occurred many times. The complexities of civilization have repeatedly added a snowballing load of cultural innovations to human groups, usually resulting in a population explosion and subsequent crash. We are currently likely near a population peak resulting from the greatest innovation snowball the world has ever known. 

The cultural packages that were stable at past times did not evolve to maximize human happiness, but rather, like organisms, to maximize their own reproductive capabilities. A small band of happy foragers could expect to be overwhelmed by a cranky but fecund settlement of farmers; hence, in this example, the farmer cultural package would be reproduced more successfully than the forager package. That said, humans themselves evolved in the presence of past successful stable cultural packages (just as we evolved in the presence of prey species and parasites). Cultural packages that were stable for centuries appear to have done a decent job of providing humans with a sense of meaning and a decent level of wellbeing. 

Should we go back to the old ways? This is both impossible and undesirable. The further back in time we go, the lower the population density norms evolved to support. It is unlikely that the world's present population could be supported in foraging tribes or even simple farming societies. Not only that, but the evolved cultural packages have largely been interrupted; even if we wanted to instantiate them, we would have a hard time finding out exactly what they were. 

Given the search function that past humans used to "find" their cultural packages, it is likely that the cultural packages are local maxima for cultural reproductive success. They are hard-won solutions to complex problems, worked out in the computer of time and human lives; but they are not absolute maxima of anything, and they are not necessarily even local maxima of human wellbeing. Even if we were to go back in time to a pre-civilized society, it is not clear that maintaining existing traditions would be the best way to maximize human wellbeing. It is likely that there are many dimensions along which we could increase human wellbeing at the expense of environment-specific cultural reproduceability. 

Fast forward, however, to the present day, in which existing cultures have moved very far away from evolved cultural packages. In what direction have they moved away, and how has this affected human wellbeing? 

There are two major directions in which cultural packages have changed: toward those norms and institutions that support greater population density (agriculture, Green Revolution, cities), and toward short-term individual preference as dictated by market economies. 

Rich industrialized countries are particularly high in serving short-term individual preference. While these countries have experienced a major reduction in violence over hundreds of years, they also experience new, widespread problems that undermine the very desirability of human life itself. Suicide, for instance, is more prevalent in industrialized countries than homicide. Obesity and depression have both reached epidemic proportions unheard of before the present century. More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago. 

The old ways (evolved cultural patterns) probably did a decent job of meeting the needs of ancestral populations. These old ways would not meet our needs today. But moving away from ancestral norms based on individual short-term preference is not turning out to be a good way to meet our needs. The invisible hand, it seems, is strangling us. 

We have indulged our short-term preferences at the expense of healthy bodies, meaningful lives, and stable relationships. This is not an indictment of human willpower: we simply did not evolve the capabilities to resist the temptations provided by modern life. 

The old ways are not the answer. Moment-to-moment individual preference is not the answer. Is there an answer?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Are Children Part of the Pattern?

In my previous post on marriage, I outlined a few behavior patterns that may be associated with a stable, successful marriage. From the evolutionary psychology perspective, a natural question follows: is having children one of the patterns that would support, and hence predict, marital stability?

In the late 1960s in the United States, when divorce was first beginning to become common, there was a clear answer: children had a strong, statistically significant stabilizing effect on marriage, at least for the first few children and at least while the children were young. In a 1977 paper reporting on data current as of the late 1960s, Becker et al. found that the presence of a child under the age of 6 by the fifteenth month of marriage reduced the probability of divorce in the first five years of marriage by about 25% (removing about one percentage point of an approximately four percent risk of divorce), and had an even greater effect in the second five years of marriage. (A second child, however, reduced the risk of divorce less than the first - and a fifth child seemed to actually increase the risk of divorce. In addition, the risk of divorce was increased if the wife was pregnant prior to the marriage.)

That children should be stabilizing to a marriage makes perfect evolutionary sense and hardly needs explanation. Marriage is a union for the (evolutionary) purpose of supporting common genetic interests; children are exactly the "marital capital" that would be expected to make both parents more willing to invest in the partnership. The presence of children also makes divorce less attractive to the members of the couple, as each would have a harder time finding a new mate given the financial, social, and physical toll children take on one's subsequent mate value. 

That NOT having children should destabilize a union would make excellent evolutionary sense to the extent that sterile unions were a serious risk under the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. To the extent that sterility was a risk for couples in EEAs, whether through genetic incompatibility, infectious disease, or other reasons, there would be major fertility benefits to exiting a union if it failed to produce children (at least for the fertile partner). If sterility were rare in the EEAs, a behavioral adaptation facilitating the abandonment of a childless union might not be adaptive.

So in the 1960s, when legal marriage was still somewhat synonymous with lifetime partnership, having one or two young children did, in fact, contribute to marital success. However, this has not been the case with cohabitation relationships; having children actually strongly destabilizes a cohabitation relationship

I have argued that because humans evolved to rely on cultural patterns and coercion to enforce marital partnerships, marriage no longer really exists; all that is left to us is cohabitation relationships under the false name of marriage. If this is true, we would expect the presence of children to begin destabilizing (what is now legally recognized as) marriage, rather than stabilizing marriage, in proportion with the reduction of coercion and other cultural patterns that support marriage. Sadly, in a 2001 study from the UK by Chan & Halpin, this is exactly what was found to have occurred. The study examined multiple sources of data from the 1950s through the 1990s and found that while the presence of a small child had a stabilizing effect on marriage in the 1950s, the effect began to change sign in the 1980s and was large and negative by the 1990s:

For those who got married in the 1950s, each additional child was associated with a 16% reduction in divorce risk. In contrast, for the 1990s marriage cohort, each additional child is associated with a 37% increase in divorce risk. [Emphasis mine.]
 

Even young children - those most stabilizing in the Becker paper - were found to be destabilizing by the 1990s. Chan & Halpin found no effect for the gender of children, but note that some authors have found that sons are less destabilizing than daughters. The cause the authors found most likely for the shift was income inequality, as income inequality increased drastically in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s and the destabilizing effect was most prominent for low-income families. 

In modern life, the birth of a child is associated with a sudden decrease in marital satisfaction that generally persists throughout the relationship. Similarly situated couples who do not have children experience a more gradual decline in marital satisfaction. How might this observation be explained in terms of the effect of children on marital success?

One hypothesis is that children have always caused marital satisfaction to plummet, but that patterns and coercion were strong enough to cause a troubled couple to remain together. A second hypothesis might be that the sudden drop in marital satisfaction with the birth of a child is new, and reflects the loss of happiness-maintaining patterns that would, in EEA or even pre-1980s conditions, prevent the drop in marital satisfaction that is now observed shortly after the birth of a first child. Those investigating children and happiness in the 1970s and 1980s found a decrease in happiness with children (see Baumeister's Meanings of Life, Appendix B: The Parenthood Paradox), including a decrease in marital satisfaction, but it is not clear if this change predates the modern loss of marriage patterns.

Whatever the explanation, marriage as it currently exists is not providing the kind of stable, reliable union of genetic interests that can survive the stress of the birth of a child - and poor children are those most harmed. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Marriage Is

Marriage between humans is potentially the fusion of the genetic interests of two individuals, the formation of a gift-relationship community in which each may act altruistically, and each reaps substantial rewards.

However, there is also the possibility for competition and exploitation in marriage, both in the formation state and at any point after formation. We would expect humans, as embodied reproductive strategies, to have emotional, physical, and cultural means of dealing with competition and the risk of exploitation, but allowing for the formation and maintenance of marriages under auspicious circumstances.

The environments in which humans adapted (EEAs) include other co-evolving organisms, such as dogs, parasites, and prey species. Similarly, human EEAs include co-evolving cultures. If the culture in which we evolved suddenly changes, it may wreak as much havoc as if the species we evolved to eat (or which evolved to eat us) suddenly disappeared.

I believe the norms surrounding marriage are such cultural elements. We evolved in cultures with certain norms surrounding marriage; these varied between cultures, but not arbitrarily. Our culture has changed drastically - exponentially - in recent years, and the elements of culture relating to marriage have been some of those that have changed the most.

One way in which culture has supported marriage is through coercion: once married, societies enforced ongoing duties between the pair. Parties to a marriage were forced to make the best of their one marriage, as they likely would not get another shot. While this would force some to remain in bad, even abusive, marriages, it probably benefited most by encouraging couples to form and maintain good marriages. It's a sort of spike on the steering wheel. As generally occurs in human institutions, a few unlucky folks are thrown under the bus for the good of the other monkeys.

But culture has also supported marriage by providing norms for mate-finding and marriage practices that helped our ancestors maintain marriage communities that accomplished their purposes.

Parties must choose whether to form a marriage. Even if you're a woman in a nasty EEA and get sold by your parents to your 70-year-old uncle or whatever, you still must choose whether to cooperate or defect within the limits of your power. Not just at the inception, but throughout the marriage, each party constantly faces the choice to cooperate in the marriage (a good strategy if the marriage is a good one, as marriage has substantial health, fitness, and happiness rewards to offer) or defect (a good choice if the marriage appears to be a bad one for various reasons).

However, defection is not all-or-nothing. If things aren't great, a minor reduction in commitment ("shit test," you might say) might be more appropriate than an outright defection. But a reduction in commitment can either trigger increased commitment by one's partner, or trigger a counter-reduction. In the latter case, the marriage community spirals out of control into a defection cycle.

What are the ancestral behaviors that might promote a happy marriage? What cues might indicate a sinking ship? We'd all like to know that, and I don't pretend to be an expert on marital behavior. But what follows is my best guess as to some behaviors and triggers that either reinforce or erode a marriage community.

Behaviors that Reinforce Marital Harmony

  • Nutrition sharing. Human couples seem to have evolved to form hunting/cooking partnerships. Division of labor by sex is on the list of human universals. Norms often treat men and women in possession of food differently, reflecting different sense of property rights based on the existence of a marriage community. Even if you don't buy the gender stuff, co-eating seems to be an extremely important ancestral method of reinforcing a pair bond.
  • Regular, exclusive sex.
  • A mutual mental commitment to indefinite future cooperation (being "all in")
  • Mutual mental modeling from frequent interaction
  • A 5:1 or greater positive:negative interaction ratio
  • Co-sleeping (and co-living in general)

These behaviors were once common, even socially obligatory, between married couples. How common are these behaviors now?

Defection Triggers

What behaviors might trigger our evolved defection responses? For the most part, these are the mirror image of the above reinforcing behaviors:

  • Failure to share nutrition, cook, or eat together
  • Treatment of the marriage as a market relationship
  • Lack of regular sex
  • Sex outside the marriage
  • Close friendships with members of the opposite sex who might threaten the relationship (opportunities to jump ship)
  • Evidence of low mental commitment to future cooperation
  • Crankiness (lower than 5:1 positive:negative interaction)
  • Lack of interaction or mutual interest resulting in poor mental modeling
  • Irregular co-sleeping or co-living

Even though modern couples may have solid reasons for engaging in the above triggering behaviors, it is not necessarily the case that we can control our ancestral responses to such behaviors.

A triggering behavior is likely to at minimum trigger a reduction in commitment from one's partner. If the response is not a reevaluation and recommitment from the "offending" partner, but rather no response or a negative response, an escalating cycle culminating in outright defection is likely.

The maintenance of the marital community - keeping the cooperative strategy operational, while preventing the defection strategy from being triggered, and certainly preventing it from triggering a defection cycle - is one job human culture used to do. It would be nice if modern independent, individual humans were able to take up the slack, but that is not a job our brains and bodies evolved to do. Those who manage to create lasting, happy marriages are fast becoming the minority. In addition to the broken-hearted marriage refugees themselves, the biggest losers are the children, brought into the world without their consent and denied their ancestral privilege of growing up in a functioning marital community.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Is Nutritional Science For Real? A Broad Experimental Design

Do nice abs speak louder than a nutritional science degree? Should they?

Interdisciplinary criticism poses a problem: tribal loyalties may unite insiders, but outsiders may geninely lack the theoretical knowledge to evaluate the claims of insiders.

I propose a general experimental design to test the expert claims of an entire field: in this case, nutrition science.

The nutritionists' case is timely, as the field has attempted to enforce its monopoly on anything resembling nutrition advice by, for instance, trying to shut down bloggers who discuss nutrition but aren't "certified." A legitimate question for the field of nutrition studies is this: is the special knowlege obtained by formal education in this field effective in solving the most important nutrition problems?

The most salient, widespread, and harmful nutrition problem in industrialized Western countries is obesity. My experimental design will test whether nutrition science, as a field, offers effective solutions to obesity.

In my view, a solution is "effective" if (a) when used, it reliably produces weight loss in obese people; and (b) it is "doable" - people are capable of putting the solution into practice. So even though a lettuce-and-fish-tea diet might be shown to produce weight loss in those who stick to it, it's not effective if most people can't stick to it. The human mind itself, including its limited willpower, is relevant to the solution.

Experimental Design

My experiment would test the claims of nutrition science as an entire field by measuring whether obese nutrition science students lose weight compared to matched controls enrolled in a program of comparable activity level.

An appropriate number of entering students in a nutrition science program (or more than one program) would be chosen as the experimental group. The control group would consist of a similar number of students enrolled in a similar education program in a subject unrelated to health or nutrition at the same institution(s), with similar demographics, overweight/obesity, and activity level.

Students in both groups would be weighed and have body fat percentages measured at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups would then have weight and body fat measured at the end of their programs, and perhaps five and ten years later.

The experiment is designed so that only the special knowledge varies between the experimental and the control group. (Suggestions welcome on how to better achieve this.)

If, at the end of five or ten years, the nutrition science students who were obese or overweight have lost weight (especially if they have become non-obese and non-overweight), and the healthy-weight students have not become obese, compared to the control group, that would be strong evidence that nutrition science provides effective solutions to obesity. Even if only 10% more obese nutrition science students than control students lost weight, that would be evidence that nutrition science has a true understanding of obesity that can be translated into real-life solutions.

However, if at the end of five or ten years, the nutrition science students have not lost more weight or remained healthier than control students, that would be some evidence that nutrition science, as a field, does not truly understand obesity in a way that can be translated into effective solutions, as define above.

This experimental design is not limited to nutrition science, of course. It could equally well apply to, for instance, therapeutic psychology; if psychology students become less depressed than control students, that's evidence of true understanding and effective methods; if psych students are not less depressed than control students at five or ten years, that would be some evidence that the special knowledge of psychology does not constitute a deep understanding of the problems it purports to address.

Thanks to @wonkinakilt on Twitter for suggestions!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Right to Marry

Even if you're the straightest, whitest, most Christian couple in the entire state of Louisiana, you don't have the legal right to marry. Not really.

It's not that you lack the right to conduct a government-approved ceremony and obtain the legal status of a married couple; you can do that. You can even file your federal tax returns as a married couple, as long as you don't have matching genitals. But nowhere in the United States do you have the right to credibly contract for a lifetime marital partnership.

Every state currently allows some form of "no fault" divorce - divorce not based on any wrongdoing of a party, but simply because the parties claim they don't want to be married anymore. Even though the couple may "vow" to remain together until one of them dies, everyone knows these vows have no legal or real-world effect. The marital "contract" is not a contract at all.

Imagine a regular legal contract in which either party could end the agreement by saying he didn't like it anymore. Could the purposes of contract law be served by such a contract? From a law and economics point of view, such an "if-I-feel-like-it" contract would not support the reliability of contracts, and would require an inefficient level of hedging. The legal term for such a contract is an illusory contract - one that doesn't have any legal effect, of which the legal system will take no notice.

Marriage once did have a legal effect - once married, parties could not divorce without a really good reason (physical cruelty, desertion, or adultery). Not coincidentally, marriages were much more likely to be reliable lifetime partnerships. In addition to the legal strictures surrounding marriage, social groups essentially forced couples to stay together or risk social death.

With the nationwide adoption of no-fault divorce and the elimination of the social stigma of divorce, the nature of marriage changed from a genuine contract to an illusory contract. Marriage stopped being the reliable, socially enforced lifetime partnership it had been for generations.

Poly people might be tempted to think of the destruction of socially enforced monogamy as a good thing. Indeed, many people who did not really want to marry were no doubt forced to do so, and forced to stay married, because attractive options did not exist.

However, even poly people must on reflection realize that an important right has been lost: the right to reliably, credibly commit oneself for life. Even those who think polyamory is the best choice for them rarely want to force their lifestyle on others; indeed, they are often some of the most vocal supporters of expanding the right to marry to gay people. Sadly, however, in allowing anyone the right to divorce at will, we have deprived everyone of the right to truly marry.

Sensing that marriage is now an empty institution, some couples have specifically contracted for the rights marriage traditionally gave them (but no longer does). In the California case Diosdado v. Diosdado, 97 Cal.App.4th 470, a husband and wife contracted that if the husband had an affair with another woman, he would pay the wife $50,000 on top of the divorce settlement, and vice versa. The husband did in fact have an affair, but the California court refused to honor the couple's agreement. The strong California public policy of no-fault divorce, the court said, prohibited courts from even enforcing the voluntary contracts of a mature adult couple:

The family law court may not look to fault in dissolving the marriage, dividing property, or ordering support. Yet this agreement attempts to penalize the party who is at fault for having breached the obligation of sexual fidelity, and whose breach provided the basis for terminating the marriage. This penalty is in direct contravention of the public policy underlying no-fault divorce.

That's right: in California, as in other states with a strong no-fault public policy, you can't even voluntarily make a credible promise of marriage and expect it to be honored by the courts.

A few states - Lousiana, Arizona, and Arkansas - allow what is called "covenant marriage," marriage that may only be dissolved on fault grounds. However, couples may not even use covenant marriage to credibly promise lifetime partnership, because either partner may simply relocate to a non-covenant-marriage state and initiate no-fault divorce proceedings there.

To recapitulate, no one in our country truly has the right to marry, in the sense of committing oneself to a partnership for life. It is legitimate to wonder if this deprivation of rights has caused the proliferation of both tattoos and ludicrously expensive wedding ceremonies, as a last-ditch effort for permanence.

Not even mature adults of sound mind, after long reflection, may decide to marry for life. However, there is another right that has been found to be so fundamental that it cannot be taken away, even from those who have demonstrated that they will abuse the right: the right to breed. The right to have children, like the right to marry, is not mentioned in the Constitution, but is interpreted as protected by the implied right to privacy. However, unlike the right to marry, the right to breed has been genuinely preserved. Mothers who starve their children to death, Trammel v. State, 751 N.E.2d 283 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), and fathers who make no effort to support their children, State v. Talty, 103 Ohio St.3d 177 (2004), may not be restricted in their "fundamental right" to have as many children as they can.

It is sad for all of us that the law protects the right of each person, no matter how cruel or stupid, to create new, needy, suffering human beings; but no person, no matter how mature, is trusted with the right to credibly commit him- or herself to marriage for life.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Niche Creates The Crop

What determines whether a crop will be grown is the value of the crop in its particular ecology. If a crop is valuable enough that it may support an army of bandits to keep away other armies of bandits, and also support those farmers necessary to grow and harvest the crop, it will be grown. So wheat and opium are grown with the assistance of armies, because of their great value; nasturtiums are not widely grown, but here and there are grown with hardly any protection at all, as the currency their worth may be measured in (being mostly the currency of signalling the grower's leisure, skill, and neighborliness) is not carried in the flowers themselves. But consider the nasturtium if it should ever be subject to a variant of the tulip bubble; the increased inherent value of the crop would increase the possibility for theft, hence the size and tactics of the army necessary to defend it.

Who can remember the crops that were lost to us for not fitting through this filter? Those with some value, but not enough to support their growth and protection? Perhaps they are grown in a garden here, a ditch there. But not on great estates on the choicest land.

It does not matter that a state prohibits the crop from being grown; the state, by doing so, only declares itself an enemy of the group of bandits who form to profit from the crop. While the state increases the cost of protecting the crop, and also the cost of growing and harvesting the crop, by doing so it also puts its resources behind increasing scarcity, hence the value of the crop (not every person may grow for himself). The prohibition of a valuable crop thus creates a valuable niche or tropism, which will necessarily be filled in an economy just as in nature.

(One problem with RICO and forfeiture laws is that it allows the state (declared enemy of the crop, foreswearing benefit from it which might entitle the growers to protection) benefits from the bandits' benefit of the crop. The state shares in the profits, and this creates a peculiar set of incentives with the state participants maximizing their benefit.)

Coca, poppies, and cannabis will all be grown in the absence of state prohibition, because they are sufficiently valuable in either case. Only the nature of the army of bandits called into being to protect the crops will vary. The state, when it declares a particular crop its enemy, presents a formidable enemy to any would-be protector of the illegal crop. But the army of bandits that protects illegal crops has an important advantage over the state army of bandits that prohibits illegal crops: it may be formed specifically for this purpose, and need not fit any other functions of the state. The non-state bandit army protecting an opium crop need not provide any expected function of a state, and hence dispenses with many of the limitations of a state. This army lacks the legitimacy and resources of a state government, but can operate leaner and with fewer practical restrictions. For instance, the open use of atrocity to create property rights through terror is rarely available to state actors, especially modern democratic states. If they commit atrocities, they may rarely do so openly, and hence it is more difficult for them to create terrifying reputations. The non-state army of bandits that necessarily arises to protect crops does not have this limitation, and may benefit from this advantage to the detriment of the people. If it is true that a bandit army that uses atrocity will be better able to protect and benefit from the illegal crops than an army that does not, then it logically follows, given a variety of possible armies, that the tactics of atrocity will be used.

Frequently, states highlight atrocities committed by their opponents as reason that they, the states, should be given more power. It is rarely pointed out that the state is ultimately responsible for these atrocities, as their commission follows with very few assumptions from the very prohibition of a valuable crop.

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