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Modern Times

One of the core ideas of the 90's EP synthesis is mismatch between the current environment and the environment we evolved in (EEA). I agree with Boyd and Richerson's critique of this “big mistake” approach; traditional EP pays far too little attention to the power of culture to shape behavior, supposing that any behavior patterns seen in American psychology students are the result of an innate mental module. However, I think that a great many people feel stressed and alienated by the modern world because we have a strong instinct that having many relationships is a form of security, and that those relationships have to be cemented by face-to-face conversation. The combination of rule of law and monetized social interaction gives the modern person huge scope to do what they please, and this can be both fulfilling and highly productive, but the cost is alienation and an overwhelming range of choices. We have no idea of who to conform to. We have no idea of what measure of prestige to use.

It's true that income is the default prestige metric in the US, and the default status display is buying uselessly costly houses, cars, home decorations, etc. But since at least the 1950's there has been much exploration of alternate value systems, especially in urban populations and the upper middle classes. The idea of “cool” or “hip”, with its strong value on non-conformity and creative improvisation. More recently, as boomers settled down and had families, there has been a shift towards less overtly rebellious visions of authenticity, but still reacting against the consumerist culture. The picture is confused because useless non-materialistic activities are also displays which win us status according to their their cost in time and Opportunity cost. As for the elites in the late 1800's, leisure is itself a status display. Today, having a day job, then being a Maker or an artist, is a status display. Even from a pure genetic EP perspective, once you have enough wealth for basic needs, it may make sense to optimize your status by engaging in non-paid activity. Saying these things are status displays doesn't mean they aren't also authentic self-expressions, but Intentional Opacity leads us to give a beady eye to the reported motivations for these life choices. Is choosing to give up your job as a high-paid professional to be a stay-at-home parent an authentic expression of love? A way of showing your spouse is so stinking rich? A way to optimize your genetic fitness by maximizing your investment in your offspring? It can be all of these.

What gives prestige is culturally determined, but we suspect an innate bias toward wealth and power (see Prestige Bias). Wealth and power are not purely socially constructed. All animals have a sense of quality and amount of food, and social mammals usually have some sort of dominance ranking. Humans are outliers, in that until 5000-10000 years ago, we mostly lived in egalitarian tribal groups (see Human Origins and Original Sin). This is probably partly why many people find today's high levels of social inequality to be frustrating and morally repugnant. Yet cultures clearly can vary widely in what is considered prestigious, and at the level of cultural evolution, this choice is presumably an important contributor to the culture's fitness (winning increasing mind share over time).

Modern times are a huge puzzle for Evolutionary Psychology (EP), because of Demographic transition. People have been choosing to have fewer children with higher individual investment, in order for their children to have higher status. This is very odd under genes-alone EP theory, since it seems from the numbers that high status people have fewer children rather than more. All genes-alone EP can say is that this is another big mistake people have been tricked into sacrificing their reproductive potential because in the EEA status did win higher reproduction. Genetic/cultural coevolution opens the possibility of other answers, which, through the lens of group selection, might be seen to be increasing the inclusive fitness of the demographic transition strategy. Western cultural innovations are steamrollering the rest of the world, even though those peoples are far more numerous. For the culture's adaptive fitness, adequate education and economic differentiation are far more important than the total number of people. It is unknown whether western elites are actually sacrificing their long-term genetic fitness or not, but even in pre-modern times there have been practices of reproductive sacrifice in exchange for status (such as celibate priests and Chinese eunuchs).

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analysis/social/modern/0main.txt · Last modified: 2014/12/25 11:30 by ram