Re:Re:Re: Are We Naturally Contributors?

The debate continues…

Mike, you make a good case, but I think you bring up a common misconception about evolution: that “survival of the fittest” = “every man for himself.”  In the wiki about kin selection, it talks about “Hamilton’s Rule” – explains why prairie dogs sound alarms to their family even though it singles them out to predators.  You say that mammals “will not hesitate to engage in infanticide,” but that’s hardly ever the case.  What about salmon that exhaust themselves to death by swimming upstream to lay their eggs, or octopuses that starve to death tending to their young, or birds that fake a broken wing to distract predators from their nest, the list goes on…  Hamilton makes sense of animal altruism by defining an equation between cost and benefit to the altruist’s genes.  The equation itself is pretty useless (I see it as just an attempt at making evolution a more absolute science, which it isn’t) but the idea that the benefit to the altruist is directly related to the benefit of the recipient and the “degree of relatedness” is pretty huge.  It means that altruism, like any evolutionary trait, is the result of a balance of influences:  the cost to the individual and the benefit to kin.  According to this balance, animals are selfish only when the cost of altruism is too great.  And sometimes, as in the cases above, even the cost of death isn’t enough for a family member to think of themselves first.  You say that concern for the survival of the self is an instinctual prerequisite, but I think the opposite could be true: we instinctively think of family members first, then back down if the cost is too great, and from seeing incidents like this, I think we’re wired to make that decision in a split second.

(Some more on infanticide: When parents do eat their young, it’s because the cost of altruism is too great.  Sometimes the offspring is too weak to survive so the parent is forced to eat them to benefit its own survival.  Resource competition turns even the most team player prairie dogs into baby killers.  Another reason for infanticide, seen in lions, is to gulp down parts of the gene pool that pose a threat to their survival.  These cases usually involve species that have a lot of babies, so they’re relatively “expendable.”  The exception is male-ruled species like lions, where the male successor must do some “ethnic cleansing.”  (Is it a coincidence that some power-hungry human males have done some ethnic cleansing of their own?)  But as species have less offspring the cost of losing one becomes greater, and they’re more likely to adapt ways of getting around eating their babies, like the kangaroo.  In the animal kingdom, when babies are on the menu, parents usually prefer another meal.)

To continue, I agree that altruism has evolved as a form of reciprocation, but not completely back to one’s self, because in evolution the individual is only one path of a gene pool’s outlet into the future.  I move from this scientific meaning to the “family feeling,” because I believe that our cognitive ability to empathize with each other can extend outside our gene pool (as opposed to using only pheromones and whatnot to recognize kin).  Scientifically, it might be those mirror neurons coming into play, which lead us to make investments in groups like sports teams which have no bearing on our own success.  Of course, evolutionary science doesn’t guide our every decision and there is such a thing as individual free will, but I think the predispositions of society as a whole are highly influenced by human evolution.

About one’s individual sense of purpose: I agree that people want to make their own legacy, but is it really a natural need to always be identified as an individual?  Or is it our society’s glorification of the individual (the celebrity hero) that captivates us towards this?  I really don’t know (that’s another debate), but I do know there’s a sweet spot for everyone where they feel individually recognized, but also included.  I think Tim Berners-Lee found this sweet spot while working on the web.  He says in his TEDTalk:

It was difficult to explain, but there was a grassroots movement. And that is what has made it most fun. That has been the most exciting thing, not the technology, not the things people have done with it, but actually the community, the spirit of all these people getting together, sending the emails.

So I think that just being identified within a group which is involved in a common goal that you believe in can be as rewarding as receiving a gold star or a pat on the back.  And I think the underlying psychology has to do with these mirror neurons and that “family feeling.”  The problem is finding that “sweet spot” in a world where huge corporations and big cities can seem overwhelmingly complex and out of our control.

So I’ll bring up a new question in response to Mike’s suggestion: What if what we “generally don’t cognitively recognize” is not that our reciprocated actions are inherently selfish, but that our reciprocated actions are inherently altruistic?  What if the selfishness that we’re driven towards isn’t natural, but artificial?

As humans, we are a social species with few numbers of offspring and, at least in our society, we have plenty of resources.  The above trends in evolutionary biology suggest that we should be one big happy family.  Alright, maybe not one big family, but within some scope of relatedness, we have the necessary ingredients for altruism.  Yet every day that rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  So what’s the problem?

I don’t know if I’ve made this clear yet: I don’t believe that biological altruism is the same as everyday altruism in people (we’re not slaves to our genes), but I do think that it has roots in our underlying psychology.  I think these rooted mechanisms for altruism can be twisted and pulled by the status quo.  What I mean is that maybe it is the evolution of our society that constrains our altruistic tendencies by artificially raising the cost of altruism and lowering the benefit.

(Btw, I’m not the only one who thinks this: the other day I was in the coffee place at the library and I couldn’t help but overhear a guy and girl next to me talking about this.  They were trying to study, but drifted off into conversation about how wrapped up everyone is in the rat race.  I remember the guy called it “systemic selfishness.”  They were talking about how no one talks to each other on the bus, etc. and I couldn’t help but interrupt and tell them how much I agreed.)

A good example is donations – hard to see the benefit, easy to see the cost.  When you donate to some large organization like the Red Cross, the dent in your wallet is obvious, but how the money gets used is anybody’s guess.  It’s difficult to trust such a large group to use the money efficiently and do the right thing.  Also, because the scope of care is so large, we might not necessarily want to support all of the causes under their umbrella.

Another thing is anonymity – I think it creates selfish tendencies because it eliminates recognition: a benefit for altruism and a cost for selfishness.  A good example is road rage: chances are you’ll never see that person that you cut off again, so why not do it?  Another example is shoplifting: much easier to get away with and less guilt for a shoplifter at a crowded WalMart than at the local mom-and-pop store.

So, to conclude (finally), I think that is that it’s an evolved system of overgrown societal groups that dilute the benefit of altruism and encourage selfishness.  I think that this artificial “systemic selfishness” can sway our genetic predisposition for altruism.  The more evolved and overgrown a society becomes, the more selfish the individuals seem to get.

Here’s a pretty cynical take by Louis C.K. on consumers and capitalism along the same lines.  I try not to be so pessimistic: I think there’s opportunity for change and it starts with people being aware of how society influences their decisions, and as Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Bring on the Learning Revolution

I’m still hung up on this whole education thing (I wonder why it concerns me/us so much?) so I needed to post about a TED talk which pretty much sums up everything we were trying to say, except with a lot more British wit.  Instead of saying anything more about it, I’ll just let Ken Robinson bring on the learning revolution.

I compiled a list of quotes that popped out at me, so if anyone wants to comment, you can cite them:

  1. “There are two types of people in this world, those who divide the world into two types and those who do not.” – Jeremy Bentham
  2. “Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them. They’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.”
  3. “What we need — and the word’s been used many times during the course of the past few days — is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else.”
  4. “the tyranny of common sense”
  5. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.” – Abraham Lincoln
  6. “Life is not linear, it’s organic.”
  7. “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.”
  8. “We have sold ourselves into a fast food model of education. And it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.”
  9. “And the reason so many people are opting out of education is because it doesn’t feed their spirit, it doesn’t feed their energy or their passion.”
  10. “So I think we have to change metaphors. We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”
  11. “It’s about creating a movement in education in which people develop their own solutions, but with external support based on a personalized curriculum.”
  12. “Every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet. And we should tread softly.”
  13. “Now, in this room, there are people who represent extraordinary resources in business, in multimedia, in the internet. These technologies, combined with the extraordinary talents of teachers, provide an opportunity to revolutionize education. And I urge you to get involved in it because it’s vital, not just to ourselves, but to the future of our children.”

Alright, I have to stop wasting time and get back to my lab report made out of ticky tacky.

Evolution and Why Communism Could Never Exist (For Long)

This was originally a reply to Josh’s comment, but I started going a little overboard, so I decided to make it a post 🙂  (sorry it’s so long)

Awesome comment, Josh.  I’ve thought about this a lot, and yes I think it would definitely be the ideal way to live.  But it’s just that, an ideal situation that could never exist, or if it did, not for long.  To put it bluntly, I think it’s just the natural order of things.  Civilizations, like all things, evolve to become more stagnant and heterogeneous – this is what Herbert Spencer talks about in “First Principles.” (I stumbled on this book when I read Jack London’s biography – he’s quoted saying that “First Principles” was really influential to him.)  Spencer possesses a broad philosophical view in which he tries to unify all things under universal principles.  In this book, he goes through this all-encompassing list of evolutionary processes: solar system formation, geologic transformation, body development, religion, language, civilization, of course biological evolution, etc.  For each one, he’s able to prove that a similar process occurs:  Starting with some sort of “primordial soup” of stuff which is homogeneous, that stuff starts to coagulate in places and form distinct parts.  As time goes on, the parts become more and more distinct, and the motion that formed them starts to dissipate.  You can think of this process as a sort of fractal, because if you zoom out on the whole, it’s also a part which has become more distinct from other parts as it evolved.

When I first read this, I didn’t fully grasp how mindblowing it really was, until I thought about how it applies to anything and everything.  Take the United States as an example, to stay on topic with government.  We started as a nation united in the common goal of gettin rid of those red coats.  Most of us were do-it-yourselfers because we didn’t have much of an infrastructure and a lot of people were on the move to find new land.  Sure, you did have differences in wealth, education and other demographics, but not on the scale that you see today.  So you could say that people were a lot more similar, more homogeneous than they are now, because a lot of them were in the same boat (no Mayflower pun intended).

Then, people started deciding on how to organize the nation, and the two party system arose.  But parties were loosely defined at first, and there was even a period when there was no need for a two-sided debateLong story short, the parties used to split apart and then realign in cycles, but eventually this stabilized into the two parties we have now, which have polarized over time, grown more distinct.  People are less likely to change sides or change their views, and many would say that our government is becoming more stagnant.  Meanwhile, the people and our communities (scroll to bottom two questions) have also gotten more distinct: environmentalists in the Northwest, techies in Silicon Valley, conservative types in the Mid-West, guidos in New Jersey, etc.  You might consider these as stereotypes, but it’s because there is a definite concentration of those types of people in those places.  Additionally, most people aren’t pioneering do-it-yourselfers anymore; each person generally has his/her own specialized job.  We’ve also seen a growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor, as businesses have snowballed into powerful corporations.  This is all evidence that the United States is one of Spencer’s evolving systems, with parts that grow more distinct by the minute.  True to Spencer’s description, this applies if you zoom in on the parts, or zoom out on the whole: workers are more distinct parts of businesses, which have become more distinct parts of the U.S., which has become a more distinct part of the world.

So, according to Spencer’s unifying evolution theory, our country is like a planet in the solar system which has formed out of dust and will eventually end up as a cold rock floating in space.  But, I don’t think that we the people are that powerless.  As humans, the cycle of life grants us the ability to create perpetual motion with reproduction.  Similarly, we can create a perpetual motion as a society with revolution.  When I say revolution, I don’t necessarily mean a bloody coup.   A revolution is any kind of change in the order of things, like a jolt to the system which gets things in motion once more, restarting an evolutionary cycle.  Revolutions in industry and transportation jump started the movement of people and resources all over the globe, and revolutions in technology have dramatically altered society, the internet being a prime example.  But whereas the internet can be restructured by the masses, our government cannot be manipulated by all because power and worth aren’t so evenly distributed.

So back to communism for a bit: I believe it’s an unsteady equilibrium, set at the beginning of the evolution of a government, when everything is homogeneous.  The natural tendency is for a pockets of inequality to form, and there will be a rise to power of someone like Stalin.  To maintain communism is kind of like balancing an inverted pendulum – all it takes is a big enough push and equilibrium is lost.  Even in the case that Josh brought up, with scaled-down community groups, the push would be for a loss of homogeneity as groups combine and conquer, etc. like he mentioned (regardless of how altruistic people in those groups might be).  I think it’s foolish to try to restrain motion like this; instead we should try to keep the pendulum of government swinging.

The U.S. used to have an oscillating system of government (“long story” link from earlier), where parties would completely transform every thirty or so years in response to political pressures, like after the Great Depression.  The article explains what’s happened since then:

“With major changes in the American political system since the New Deal, the pattern of stability and change inherent in the critical realignment model no longer seems to characterize American politics. The tremendous growth in the federal government and its activist role in economic and social policy have made it far more responsive to demands for change than it once was and have perhaps transformed the underlying basis of the realignment model. The result is a weakened party system given to gradual rather than dramatic transformations.”


I’m not sure I agree with the view that the government’s growth and activist role have made it more responsive to our demands for change (this is one of the only opinion-based statements in this article, which is why you can’t always trust wikis).  I’m no expert and I don’t pretend to be, but I would think that a larger government with a stagnant party system would be less responsive to demands for change, and from what I’ve seen recently that seems to be true.  Because the party system has lost the capability of revolution, I think that evolution has run its course in our government and now corporations and their SuperPacs have grown to hold all the cards.  The pendulum is no longer swinging as much as it used to.
So, getting away from this frustrating reality, and getting into the hypothetical: if we could somehow form a new government, I think that it should be based on the idea of preserving the ability of revolution to restore motion in an evolving government.  Sure, revolution is a friend of the people, but this sounds like an oxymoron, because revolution is the enemy of government, right?  Yea, but that’s only if you think about government as a physical group of people that are replaced by a revolution (which unfortunately is how governments like to think of themselves when they’re formed).  Government should be kept more abstract, more fluid, kind of like a network of ideas, so that revolution is just a wave of change that disperses throughout.  Wait… don’t we already have something like that?  Yes, the internet!  You can probably guess what I’m thinking: online voting and campaigning.  It’s already being used in Switzerland!  And, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Switzerland is known for political stability, and has one of the most stable economies in the world.  Also, they’ve been able to satisfy demands for renewable energy.
A direct democracy, which is what Switzerland has, has always been considered unpractical and just too tedious because everyone votes on everything.  Our government is a compromise where we just elect someone to do all that work for us.  But, now that we have this perfect voting tool that’s in everyone’s hands, I don’t see the need for compromise.  I, for one, wouldn’t mind taking a few hours, one day out of the week, to vote online; instead of voting every couple years or so for a person who doesn’t have my interest in mind.  Of course, there would still need to be a central government group, but they could be more like the bootstrappers, maintaining the system and improving it; whereas the true power lies in the hands of the voters.  When the people can constantly impart their own motion into a government like this, I think that is when the government will constantly evolve, never becoming stagnant.
What do you guys think?  Could it work?  More importantly, do you think it will it ever be tried?