- Pride, prejudice, and Pushkin Donald Rayfield, Literary Review
- A century ago America saved millions of Russians from starvation Economist
- “Nature or nurture?” Yes. Dorsa Amir, Aeon
- When America and Russia were friends RealClearHistory
This is a micro alert. Be careful, reading this might make you uncomfortable.
It’s a November afternoon, a rather nice November but November all the same. There is a wedding on the little lawn on the cliff right above Steamer Lane. (Note for my overseas friends in Germany, Turkey, and Illinois: Steamer Lane is a famous cold water surf championship spot in Santa Cruz, California. The whole area, on the Monterey Bay, is exceptionally beautiful.)
The bride is late; surprise! The groom’s buddies are milling around in their comfortable enough tuxedos.* The bridesmaids are sitting and flocking together in their bareback, bare-arms, low-cut long dresses. A cool sea breeze is blowing, of course. Anyone could have predicted it. The ladies are obviously cold, as they should be. Anyone would be. Exemplary social scientist that I am, I make it a point to pass close enough to verify that goose pimples prevail. This goes on for at least an hour. It’s true nippling weather. Maybe that’s the point and I am just missing it.
I don’t know why no one in charge of the women of the bridal party planned for this weather. I don’t know why the bridesmaids’ uniform could not have included a tasteful shawl. Frankly, I don’t know if any of them would have used a shawl in preference to shivering though. (One young woman in my entourage says, “No way!”) At any rate, it’s difficult to take seriously the claim that women are tired of being considered sex objects. Those women, and the women of every American bridal party I have ever seen are bravely and determinedly on display. It’s not an intellectual display; it’s not a talent show; it’s not an IQ contest. I would swear they are disturbed, possibly enraged at the thought of not being considered sex objects on this occasion, after so much effort. The chasm between public discourse and reality has rarely been so wide since the Victorian Age. In the long run, political correctness is sure to induce some sort of collective schizophrenia, it seems to me.
Just to be painfully clear: I am not criticizing the bridesmaids’ behavior – bless their hearts! I hear that young men are ever more reluctant to commit. And you don’t catch flies with vinegar. And there must be a reason why Mother Nature placed women’s breasts on their chests rather than on their backs. (It’s so they can watch men watching them and take it from there.) I am not deriding the women in the bridal party at all. Female exhibitionism has been an attractive part of my worldview ever since I can remember (maybe since three or four years of age). I am just not becoming used to the grossly hypocritical denial that forms today the social context of such displays. It even bothers me worse than ever.
Someone has to shout, “Bullshit!” I wish older women would do it. In their regretted absence, here I am! You can count on me.
* “How gauche,” my snobbish Parisian side is thinking. Tuxedos are evening attire; they should never see the sun.
There are two senses in which to consider the phrase.
- The sense in which memes enter or exit our minds.
- The sorts of behavior encouraged by our memes.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about:
Richard Dawkins introduced the idea in his famous book: The Selfish Gene. The bulk of his book discusses examining the gene as the basic unit of analysis in evolutionary studies. He introduces the idea of the meme as a different form of replicator. Both genes and memes will only be reflected in the outcome of biological and cultural evolution if they exhibit fitness–if they are able to survive.
So the cultural traditions that helped hunter-gatherer societies survive droughts or harsh winters tended to survive and spread. Over time a culture accumulates this sort of practical, tacit knowledge. (Side note: this week’s Econtalk has Cesar Hidalgo who does really interesting work trying to indirectly measure the presence of such tacit knowledge in market economies.) And if culture is made up of memes, the same way organisms are made up of genes.
Looking at genes as the unit of analysis (as opposed to the organism) explains some otherwise mysterious behavior. It provides a plausible explanation of altruism: we care for our children more than anyone because 50% of their genes are our genes. A nephew is still precious, but not as important to us because the expected ratio of shared genes between the two of you is 25%. A gene that prompts you to protect your children is likely to survive longer than a gene that doesn’t prompt you. (And genes that hang around with such kin-protects genes are also more fit than their competition.) A gene that prompted you to be kind to neighbors makes sense when you live in small groups. But a gene that prompted you to be kind to total strangers might be a liability in a world where strangers were dangerous.
Cultural evolution certainly makes sense as a gradual mutation of different cultural practices merging together to make what is called (and perceived) as a unique body of culture. It’s a complex of knowledge, ideas and basic assumptions, social interface protocols, and it’s deeply embedded in how we engage in the world. (Perhaps we can’t remember our infancy because we didn’t have a cultural lens through which to reference anything to anything else…) One thing that I’m sure we’ve all noticed is that it can be almost painful to have to reject a cherished belief. It’s even difficult to see one of these memes challenged.
Now genes don’t have to be small bits of genetic code. They can be something simple like “make this enzyme when you get a chance.” But as a unit of replication, you should consider the smallest discrete chunk of genetic coding that replicates itself. If a particular pattern isn’t fit, it will leave the gene pool, while the fit collections of genetic instruction spread. So you might end up with long complex strings of genetic material akin to a computer program. Initially simple scripts might gather as successful collections of genes that work well together. The “produce stomach acid” gene works well with the “produce a stomach” gene and soon the two are virtually inseparable. They’ve become a simple script: “Do this, then that, then maybe this other thing.” Scripts gather into multi-cellular organisms with different functions that can respond differently to different stimuli. Soon you’ve got a complex set of code as your replicating unit.
More complex genes are necessary to prompt more complex behavior. It’s worth noting that Dawkin’s theoretical framework sometimes looks like a hyper-rational economics model. Evolutionary Stable Strategies are a Nash Equilibria that are robust to invaders. They occupy a niche and survive. But this evolution is happening in the context of increasing complexity. The system is learning*. This isn’t an instantaneous process**, but it is gradually becoming more sophisticated.
A complex gene will get bugs due to random mutation, but as long as it’s still generally fit, it will survive. And over time, more subtle and sophisticated programs identify new niches. And we get plant genes surviving by filling the “eat sunlight” niche and animals in the “eat plants” niche, and bacteria co-evolving with animals’ digestive systems.
Slowly working through this long, blind, random process genes surviving this hostile environment develop behaviors that help them flourish (the “four F’s of evolution: Fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction”). Gradually they stumble into opportunities, and an important one was social behavior.
More and more complexity, round and round, until we start to get our first little bits of sentience. I’ve been watching a chinchilla hop around my apartment for a couple weeks now and I’m astonished by how much effort she puts into genuinely exploring her world. She tests objects for structural integrity and learns what she can and can’t jump on. She tests boxes with her teeth, I don’t know what for. She’s distinctly learning and not merely existing or surviving. She’s comfortable and does not know fear (I’ve seen her scare one particularly wussy cat). That sort of behavior requires a great deal of complexity which requires a great deal of genetic material.
I’m noticing as I write this that the biggest gene (i.e. discrete, replicated set of genetic code) must be that very large collection of genetic patterns that must come together in order for a one’s offspring to simply be the same species.*** I’ve heard that humans and chimps share 94 percent of our genetic material. That overlap tells me that some larger percentage than that is what makes us actually a human. The difference between any two individuals, then, must be among a very small portion of their total genetic makeup. This small portion is where genetic competition occurs in the arena of sexual reproduction.
In any case, our first memes (behaviors) seem to be transmitted biologically. Later, with more complex genes, we are able to replicate more complex behaviors. Eventually, we get complex enough to build up a sense of consciousness****.
A complex enough gene might have a subroutine that sets off an error; something like the pain our consciousness experiences when things are going poorly*. And likewise for a meme. Though more likely is that the error is being returned by our psychology. (If our genes are assembly language, our psychology is the operating system, and culture is the mess of basic programs that makeup our desktop environment.)
When we think of memes as self-replicating units, interesting questions arise: what sort of patterns will be robust to competition? Which will occupy what niches? What happens when incompatible memes come together in one mind? What sort of eusocial behaviors are possible? How much do our memes govern our behavior? (This is where nature and nurture overlap.)
Obviously one possibility is a “selfishness meme,” or a culture that hits an equilibrium of distrust. But there are many others, and how they combine matters. At this level we’re essentially asking questions about psychology, culture, and institutions. The fodder of all the social sciences comes together here. Different memes will be transmitted in different ways (which is perhaps what defines the disciplines), but any of these memes may be complex enough to have a defense mechanism that involves activating various processes (including other memes, perhaps) and perhaps making people feel anger and related emotions when someone questions our beliefs and may even push people to fight with their life for their memes.
*We’re computers, markets are computers, societies are computers, the ecosystem is a computer, Earth is just a big giant computer. It processes data and creates new data.
** The next Hayek rap should include the phrase “it’s spontaneous order, not instantaneous…”
*** I could imagine it as made up of some set of smaller genes in some complex, rather than one monolithic gene but I don’t have the language to communicate that idea concisely.
**** And it must be noted that this consciousness is built out of parts designed for the poop-and-panic machines that were our evolutionary ancestors. It’s like building a super computer* out of a truck load of Pez dispensers and a warehouse full of chainsaws. And yet, how else could it be done.
The Victoria’s Secret catalog mailing list is several tens of thousand times longer than the mailing list of the National Organization For Women. The feminist wheel has turned enough for brave male social scientists like me finally to consider from a scientific viewpoint an issue that has been with us forever.
Here is the issue: Anyone who has ever tried to win an argument with a reasonably well-informed eleven-year old girl and lost knows that something pretty bad must happen – on the mental front – to the females of our species shortly after they reach that age. (A lexicographic irony is that “front” is the French word for “forehead.” )
I won’t affirm that young women tend to be stupid, for two reasons. First, it would offend my young Indian niece, back in Calcutta. (The parenthetical part of the title is in deference to her feelings.) Second, as my super-intelligent wife often states in a an accusatory tone of voice, I am still a kind of closet liberal. This is the same wife who suspects Attila the Hun was kind of a big softie with his silly cut-off heads of his enemies hanging from his saddle. Incidentally, I owe my wife many of my late-life insights about womanhood.
As so often happens in a the Verstehen school of sociological philosophy, my first grasp of the problem came to me during a moment of idleness. I was contemplating my twelve-year old son watching television with his index finger in his nose up to the elbow. The incongruous thought hit me: “In two or three years at most, some pretty young woman is going to think him irresistible!” I started chuckling when the double thought crossed my mind that I was facing a veritable scientific quandary and possibly the seeds of its solution.
Now, to get a handle on the problem, we need to go back a few thousand years, a few hundreds of thousands of years actually. Let’s remember that we, humans, have only known agriculture and animal husbandry for about 10,000 years. Both were discovered or invented in the Middle-East, widely defined, or in India. (An Indian friend of mine keeps telling me that India already had advanced agriculture when my European ancestors were still trying to figure out how to come down from the trees. That is pure slander; my ancestors walked from East Africa; they did not brachiate.) Before that, for as long as there have been humans, and proto-humans, they led a precarious existence.
At the center of this precariousness lied the cave bear. Imagine a carnivorous creature with ten inch-canines standing ten feet tall when irritated and weighing in at one thousands pounds. (That would be the smaller ones.) Our ancestors hanged out near cave bears much of the time for two reasons. First, they used the same caves as the bears to protect themselves from the elements. Second, they soon discovered in themselves a predilection for the carrion cave bears left lying around, like all predators.
With this propinquity, meals where our ancestors were themselves the main course, and close-calls, unavoidably occurred frequently. That we survived as a species nevertheless calls for an explanation. Here it is below. Although it’s somewhat speculative, it’s in full accordance with what we know of the more general forms of human behavior and with evolutionary theory both.
Grandpa and Grandma Caveperson most likely lived in small extended family groups of fifteen and to fifty people. There are good technical reasons for this explanation centered around what semi-nomadic humans can carry and, especially, the number of babies and small children. In close encounters with cave bears, you can be sure there were young males, teen-age boys, who stayed behind to throw stones at the monsters. Probably no one could lob rocks heavy enough, or with enough force, to do serious damage to any bear. Yet, an avalanche of rocks could delay the bear long enough to allow many, or some, women with small children, and pregnant women to scamper away.
This survival strategy poses one problem though: The young rock throwers must have suffered a high rate of mortality. Thus, the very traits of brashness, courage, and accuracy that saved the group at Time 1 were in constant danger of disappearing with those who bore those traits and thus to be unavailable at Time 2.
Something had to compensate for the high mortality among the young rock throwers. That something is obvious: They had to be able to reproduce disproportionately. Do the arithmetic: If one in ten of the wimpy youths dies before siring offspring but one in two of the tough ones, after a short while, the propensity to stay behind and taunt the bears will disappear in the population. That is, unless the surviving rock artists manage somehow to have more than twice more children that their timid brothers and cousins. It turns out that the best solution to this quandary, widely observed in many species, including humans, is female mating choice.
If young human females actively wanted to mate with rock throwers, the right traits could be transmitted down the generations forever. But of course, intelligent young women wanted to have nothing to do with the morons. Accordingly, they reproduced, and their children survived, at an inferior rate. Thus, the traits supporting simple good judgment had a tendency to thin out in the relevant populations.
Female air-heads, who were hot for the delinquents, passed on their genes in large numbers to both their female and their male children. And so on, to this day where we encounter few cave bears. These things are hard-wired. It takes a while for a trait that was useful previously to vanish from a population because it has lost its usefulness. The trait may never disappears if it does not become dysfunctional in the current situation. And this, my friends is why young women would be stupid (if they were stupid).
Scientific note: One condition that would hasten the demise of female stupidity would be if intelligent women had more children surviving to reproductive age than stupid women. There is no reason to believe that they do, overall. By the way, that’s what the phrase “survival of the fittest” means: Having children who themselves have children.
If you are of the female persuasion, Dear Reader, and if my sage observations make you livid, or red with anger, as the case may be, stop and ask yourselves: How many of your girlfriends actively demonstrate their erotic attraction to bad boys?
This is the 69th installment of ‘Around the Web’. Giggity!
- guaranteed income vs. open borders; Economist Kevin Grier weighs the options
- How poverty taxes the brain; A sexy-sounding female gives us the low-down
- The origins of Northwest European ‘guilt culture’; Evolutionary anthropologists are so, soooo cute
- The ‘thoughtful libertarian’ subreddit; Finally!
- Is Christmas efficient? Only an economist (Tyler Cowen) could ask such a thing
- God, Hayek and the Conceit of Reason; Concise essay by Jonathan Neumann in Standpoint
- Milton Friedman’s 1997 musings on a common currency in the European Union: The Euro: From monetary policy to political disunity