Thanks for the reference on conformity and prestige bias. I didn't know those terms. Not By Genes Alone looks great and I look forward to getting into it. As much as I have learned and deduced, I'm still fuzzy on many things. I am still wrapping my mind around the nature of culture, as it seems many others are as well.
Debating the nature of culture is something anthropologists have done a lot of. So there's no one right answer. I think the idea of Darwinian cultural evolution may help to refine thinking, since one discussion in anthropology has been about realizing that culture is not completely uniform within a cultural group, and this is the very diversity that natural selection needs in order to work (cultural variants). As societies become more complex, subcultures also increasingly emerge, so cultural variation is not purely at the individual level (there is stratification, to use the genetic term). In the modern world we typically participate in multiple social contexts with their own subcultures, such as our place of work, at home, church or sports events, etc., and we also have many values and expectations that come from our social class and ethnic history. This means, that as well as individuals prospering or struggling depending on what cultural variants they adopt, identifiable social groups also gain or lose mind share according to whether people feel belonging to that group benefits them and their interests. Religions are one of the clearest examples of cultural subgroup evolution, but if you use a skeptical eye you can see the same things going on in business, education and politics.
> I wanted to clarify a couple points you make.
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.
The conclusions drawn from psychology experiments are certainly debatable, but I'm not sure of the greater point. If our predispositions, inclinations, drives, and emotions were selected for small h/g groups, and if there hasn't been enough time for biological change, then aren't these qualities quite possibly (probably) mismatched to our current environment? Are you saying that it's possible that significant brain evolution has occurred since agriculture in response to the selective pressures of culture?
I do think that mismatch is an important idea, especially for things like obesity and social alienation. Evolution has an amazing ability to produce working designs, and even highly optimized designs, but it is a key principle of evolutionary theory that flaws in the design tell us more about the process of evolution, and in particular provide the strongest evidence that the design is indeed the result of mindless evolution, and not an all-knowing god, or even a wise human. So when people started to apply evolutionary theory to human behavior, it was natural that they would look at places where our behavior seems dumb (not adaptive). Boyd and Richerson's critique of the “big mistake” does not rely on recent evolution. Instead, the argument mainly emphasizes the idea that humans have broad instinctual adaptions to cultural living (such as conformity and prestige bias), and apparently maladaptive behaviors may be taking advantage of our adaptations to culture construction. These behaviors may be harmful and yet still persist because our adaptations to cultural evolution are not sophisticated enough to tell the difference. Individual fitness and group fitness can also often be in conflict, in which case cultural evolution has the upper hand because it is so much faster.
Some other criticisms that I have of the EEA, which overlap with both with an a common anti-EP criticism, and also with the Boyd and Richerson criticism:
Speculating about the long-ago environment and the special characteristics it might have had is an error-prone way of doing science. See just-so stories. We should only do this when the uniformitarian hypothesis fails to explain the data. It may be that a seemingly bad behavior truly does harm fitness, but is a side-effect of a more general behavior adaptation which is still highly beneficial overall. Boyd and Richerson's argument above is one case. So a behavior may be maladaptive without ever having been adaptive. The simple existence of non-adaptive behavior is not in itself a very strong argument for a hypothetical EEA. This overlaps with the literature on cognitive bias, and in particular the idea that apparently irrational behavior may still be adaptive in the real world. See Gut Feelings and Passions Within Reason. Another risk is that we simply accept cultural behavior norms as "good", without actually evaluating whether they are genetically adaptive or not. For example, is abusive parenting or poverty that persists generation after generation maladaptive? Anything that persists across generations is not too maladaptive, and we should be open to the evolutionary prediction that persistent behavior is the place to look for adaptations. There are far more poor people now than there were 100 years ago, simply because there's far more people than before (and "poor" is usually defined as relative rather than absolute wealth).
The possibly importance of recent human evolution is another weakness of the EEA theory. The idea that humans are adapted primarily to the environment before agriculture is quite plausible, but that only takes us back about 10,000 years. How much genetic evolution could happen in that time is completely dependent on the strength of selection pressure. Although people have offered various stories about how human natural selection might have stopped at some point. There has been increasing human control over causes of premature death such as infectious illness and accidents, but there remains considerable variation in reproductive success. Unless genetics has no effect on this remaining variation, evolution will march on. The question is only how fast. If we could know adaptation proceeded at the same steady rate from the origin of modern humans about 200,000 years ago until now, then we would know that change in the past 10,000 years is only 1/20 of that. But the very evolutionary mismatch that EP observes creates selection pressure. IMO it is likely that selection pressure has been much higher in the past 5,000 to 10,000 years. This is not only because changes in the material lifeways such as foods, but also because of intense competition both within and between neolithic city-states. Genocidal conquests and execution of social trouble-makers could both create strong selection pressures on behavior.
I've read some history of EP, and there are suggestions that the EP community around 1990 (the generation of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) had thought about the political advantage of the African savannah EEA, that it supported the ideal of human equality. From http://anthro.vancouver.wsu.edu/media/PDF/Buss2.2.pdf
Because racists and eugenicists typically justify discrimination (and worse) by claiming that one population is biologically superior to another, EP has taken great pains to ground itself in theory and evidence of a universal human nature that evolved, or was maintained by stabilizing selection, during the roughly 2 million years of the Pleistocene. If EP is correct, then there are no fundamental biological differences among human populations, let alone any notion of `biological superiority.'
Only 15 years before, E O Wilson had been hugely criticized for proposing basically the same program of evolutionary thinking about human behavior (Sociobiology), and was criticized for racism simply for saying that humans have innate behavior, without touching on race at all. EP was a deliberate rebranding and relaunch, now with the powerful idea of mismatch as an explanation for non-adaptive behaviors. Whatever the technical merits of the African EEA idea, it can also be seen as an effort to find morally solid ground from which the EP program could be promoted. If any evolution took place since the out-of-Africa migration (60k -100k years ago), then sub-populations might be more mismatched to the modern world, and perhaps even “more primitive”, which would sound a lot like the scientific racism common in the 1800's.
In 1990 we had very little evidence about genetic change since Africa, beyond ethnic physical differences, and there was a plausible story that physical appearance might have been under particularly strong sexual selection, which could have caused appearance to diverge without any group being more fit according any morally relevant part of the environment. Being beautiful by local standards helps your success within your ethnic group without implying that one group is superior to another. Since then there have been a few clear examples of adaptive mutation and selective sweeps, such as lactose (milk) metabolism in Europeans and hemoglobin (blood) in Tibetans. It is likely that much of the change has not been due to mutations but rather to sexual reassortment of existing variants. When you look at the genome as a whole, two random individuals will typically differ at about 3 million positions (base pairs). It is likely that the vast majority of these differences have no effect, either because they are in a context in the genome which has no current effect (junk DNA), or because the change it causes is unimportant. Since we have very little understanding what the effect of these differences are, any scientific inferences have to rely on hugely oversimplifying assumptions. Assumptions (such as that all differences are equally important, or that gene effects are additive) are not only not proven to be true, they are clearly false. In science we often work with known-to-be-inaccurate numerical models simply because no accurate model is known. In the case of human biology, it's likely that there is no precise model that's humanly comprehensible . The question is how much truth we can squeeze out of our necessarily crude models.
I know that our brains have a great capacity to adapt to many different situations–that seems the point of our capacity for culture. But what exists today in terms of population size and social complexity is so far beyond our EEA (thanks for that term btw), that I can't help but think the mismatch is significant and can account for problems we see today such as alienation, depression, anxiety, etc..
I agree with you here. But r.e. point  above, we should try to keep clear in our minds the distinction between “alienation, depression and anxiety suck” and “alienation, depression and anxiety are maladaptive”. One a nonintuitive catch phrase from EP is “It's not about happiness”. Though there are some points of overlap, evolutionary fitness is quite different from the “good life” of a philosopher or self-help guru. Take obesity for example. How maladaptive is obesity? Though there are some genuine public health issues, IMO 90% of our concern about obesity is driven by sexual and prestige competition. Individually we care because we want to look sexy, we want to look like the rich and famous. It was only yesterday in evolutionary terms that being fat and physically inactive was the privilege of kings. Now the prestige standard has switched, and we want to look more like we've been working in the field all day.
From Fear and Loathing of Evolutionary Psychology in the Social Sciences:
With a global population rapidly approaching six billion, it looks as though our current environments are quite congenial to our traits. Certainly, there is mortality associated with overindulgence, but most of it occurs in postreproductive years and therefore is only weakly selected against. Certainly there are many unhappy people in the world, but there is no way of knowing whether they would have been happier in a forager lifestyle, and in either case, natural selection is not about happiness; it is about reproductive success.
> Cooperation is one of the biggest of those problems which evolution solved. But cooperation today has a very different appearance today than it did originally. The essence is the same, but the execution has never been so specialized, institutionalized, and impersonal. This seems like a very sound place to discover the source of our modern complaints. Do you disagree? It is now common to live your life largely in the marketplace. Although there are still options for relationships based on mutual trust and commitment, in marriage, the workplace, or other social groups, such attachments are now avoidable, and some combination of the pressures from the system and personal choices are causing people to live in a far more socially detached way. This is a new stress, because we have instincts that personal attachments are a source of security and life meaning. It seems adult attachment is built on top of child attachment, and for a child being alone is a severe hazard.
Modern life is indeed particularly complicated, but we also tend to fall for a mythic view that once upon a time life was bare to the heart and blissfully simple. The most complicated thing in the human environment has always been other humans. See Vengance Is Ours for an example of how non-simple life can be in small-scale societies. Since there is no way to conceptually encompass the true complexity of the modern world, we live in social networks that aren't much bigger than prehistoric tribes. Since we can only know so much, we individually don't know much more than we did long ago (though what we know is different.) Human life has always involved relationship drama, political intrigue, moral ambiguity, and environmental crises.
As I was alluding, I see some key reasons why we experience stress and alienation, including our need for face to face loyalties. But do you think this need not be so? Do we not need secure face to face relationships to feel content?
I'm reading an interesting book right now, “Loneliness”, by John Cacioppo. He does make basically this argument, with the important qualification that there seems to be considerable individual difference in the need for social connection. This is a good argument, but I'd remind that contentment is not a naturally stable emotional state. The human genius is to be discontented with anything. We only notice that we actually had it pretty good when things start to fall apart. Though I'm sure there are once again individual differences, a large part of the prestige or success motivation is endless optimization, always trying to make it better, whatever it is. Prestige is based on social comparison, there is no “good enough”.
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
I totally agree that we are overwhelmed by choices, and that freedom is a double edged sword in that it creates many big decisions and a lot of stress over choosing correctly. We are often adrift. It is not easy to find our own unique way. If I understand correctly, that is the point of our innate drives toward conformity. And this is why most people are happy doing what others in their groups do. But do you make this point in relation to the previous comment? Is this more of the source of alienation a you see it? Or are you simply setting up the next thought about the extreme fracture in our measure of prestige?
Well, I'm not sure exactly what alienation means, except that it's supposed to be a uniquely modern form of psychological distress, and has something to do with feelings of a detachment either from specific other people, or from more vague sources of life meaning. I think that specifically, lack of close social ties is stressful, anxiety producing, and perhaps leading to depression and feelings of meaninglessness. Social conformity is one thing that genuinely used to be a lot simpler, because of the lack of much variety in possible life roles, and strong conservative intuitions about any kind of innovation. Lack of freedom, in other words. We want freedom, we want control over our lives, because our intuition is that this will help us to optimize, to promote ourselves and our descendents. This is probably true, but the sudden dramatic loss of cultural guidance and constraint can be distressing too. The usual modern response is to choose some subgroup value system that appeals to us, we will be a punk or a hippie or a yuppie or whatever. There's still a huge number of groups with strong behavior norms, so take a plunge and let all those distressing possibilities melt away.
I also had some thoughts about your comments on status and prestige…
My guess is that displays of status have become important in post-agricultural times where populations are too big to personally know who everyone is and what they contribute. So we have been forced to try to ascertain status by external means, such as wealth, power, and influence. This has shifted our behavior from trying to earn status by means of contributing actual value to the group toward gaining status by obtaining its indicators.
One thing that Boyd and Richards don't get into is how prestige is determined. I think they specifically chose prestige over status because status has connotations of a generally accepted ranking, whereas prestige seems to be more flexible in admitting that this judgment is context-sensitive. I'd be surprised to find a context where prestige is determined purely by altruistic contribution to the group, without regard to self-interest. Many cultural practices such as figuring out a new food source do not benefit the larger group unless they are adopted. “Grog eat stinky root and say it good. I wait and see. Grog still not die, but there are plenty of berries, I eat them. Grog have three strong children. Maybe something to this stinky root thing.” Something that benefits individuals still benefits the group as long as it doesn't harm the group in some other way. With EP, it is the seemingly altruistic behavior that demands special explanation, not the self-serving behavior. This is one of the reasons that EP is a spiky pill to swallow, because it seems to say that self-interested behavior is natural, even though it is contrary to our pro-social moral rhetoric. The group can't survive and prosper unless a majority of the individuals survive and prosper. Each individual is uniquely qualified to promote their own success, but it is not necessary to have moral guidance promoting self-interested behavior, since people do that automatically.
However, it is easy, as you point out, to see the extreme plasticity in what constitutes status and in how it is earned. What matters, in the end, is an individual provide some perceived benefit to the group in order to gain his status.
Cultures will be successful if they award prestige to individuals who act in ways that increase the culture's mind share. If watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” makes subsistence farmers move to cities and adopt western lifesyles, then Rich and Famous lifestyles are adaptive for the culture. They create desire that makes people want to adopt the culture. Whether this makes them happy, and whether they have more or fewer descendents, those are two additional questions. Cultural fitness is not individual fitness is not individual happiness. What we see in modern times is the emergence of a super-fit cultural framework (state, rule of law, economics) that is devouring existing cultural diversity. The situation with respect to individual fitness is confusing because of demographic transition. It is hard to say whether we are closer or farther from “the good life”. Philosophy quickly bogs down in intractable ambiguity, and the new science of subjective happiness isn't very clear either. To first order, people vary in their “happiness setpoint”, and tend to return to that happiness level no matter what happens, good or bad. People tend to be satisfied if their situation has been improving (upward mobility) or if they are doing all right in comparison whomever they compare themselves to. Because we are optimizing, we respond to relative comparisons far more than to absolute material wealth. However there is some scientific evidence for the common-sense idea that extreme poverty such as is still common globally does lead to reduced subjective happiness, so the continuing global wealth increase, now pushing into India, China, and even Africa, does seem like a good thing. Even if the concern is with relative income inequality rather than the well-being of the worst-off, income inequality has been decreasing in the world as a whole (if not in the US and other developed nations).
For example, there is already a pretty tangible sense that the moguls of finance and banking are not necessarily friends to society, and are not adding to our collective good. And there is also the sense that there is too much inequity. If the amount of inequity that exists now is truly damaging to society at large, as I believe it is, there is no reason this could not also continue to work itself into our collective computation of what and who deserves status. If people collectively looked down on individuals who hold excessive fortunes, it would diminish and even erase the benefit of holding such wealth. After all, it seems fairly obvious that the reason to obtain and hoard wealth is for status. Take away the status, and there isn't much left. How many homes and boats can you enjoy, especially while others look on scornfully. In this way, we collectively hold the power to prevent financial manipulation for personal gain. In this way, we hold the power to right the whole ship.
Robert Frank has an interesting argument in Luxury Fever that we should regard conspicuous displays of wealth as socially toxic pollution, in analogy with the economic theory of Market Failure through externalities in pollution of the physical environment. I think that displays of wealth are indeed distressing for those who are less wealthy, mainly because (as I keep harping on), our striving motivation is based on relative comparison rather than any sense of what is necessary for the “good life”. In the modern world, we have astounding concentrations of wealth, and also astounding communication media which make everyone aware of every unattainable wealth display anywhere in the world. Even the super-rich are not immune. If you own the world's tallest skyscraper, you're only going to have that distinction for a couple of years, and meanwhile you still don't have the biggest yacht, the most houses or the best custom jet.
Taking this line of thinking one step further, it is also fairly obvious that there is no correlation between wealth (above a moderate income) and happiness. We are not selected to anonymously and solitarily enjoy the spoils of status. We have presumably been selected, instead, to seek and want the respect, affection, esteem, and protection of people we know and with whom we directly interact. If loss of wealth would not necessarily result in a loss of happiness, the whole concept seems tenable. The idea of a new definition of status and success might well be a mime waiting and ready to be spread.
Alternate paths to prestige are already well underway, with the whole counterculture/alternative thing. In the west people have been vigorously exploring alternatives since at least the '50s, with the beat generation, and strains of rejection of materialism in the intelligentsia go back to the romantic movement in the early 1800's. One issue is that because prestige is culturally dependent, you can have a lot of different prestige models going at the same time in different subgroups. The problem is that the boring old wealth and power block is hard to ignore because they have a lot of wealth and power.
We already see many stories along these lines. In fact, it is the expected theme of most stories. We are repeatedly told that real connection is far more important than riches. We just don't yet fully believe it.
This story goes back at least King Midas. IMO these stories are common because we like to hear them, and not because they have ever been entirely accurate. The emotional reward of the moral in story isn't that it changes our understanding of what is moral, it's that it reassures ourselves that the moral world is indeed in proper order. We might suppose that the rich would benefit most from the moral, but the story is always more popular with the non-rich.
I suspect that it may be a fine and tricky line to differentiate since wealth does have some real rewards, and in a world that offers little in other forms of security and fulfillment, it seems easy to miscast the value of money. AND because we don't yet understand better ways of establishing status and knowing who to follow.
I know there is noting simple about my hope. It's much more of a preposterous pipe dream than a realistic and actionable concept. But I cannot help myself. The trick is to make the mime clear, simple, convincing and thus sticky, and to put it in the hands of the influential. That's my best guess. Do you give any thought to “saving the world?” How do you think it might be done?
We live in interesting times. I'm certainly interested in getting people to question their social striving instincts and to be careful in who they choose to compare themselves to. I do think there is a valuable story here about our human nature as ultra-social animals. Building social connection is a path to meaning which is a win-win proposition, whereas status striving is zero-sum. As you say, new ideas can work their way through a culture, though this often takes a generation or more.
In my personal politics, I think it's a big problem how dependent US politicians have become on political donations, and I have made some contributions to the Mayday PAC which is working getting the money out of politics. I'd certainly support tax changes in the US aimed at reducing inequality, but my read on this is that the idea will have to gain a lot more mind share before anything will happen. In the intellectual world inequality has been getting a lot of attention, and living in the coastal intellectual establishment it is easy to get the impression that everyone is concerned about inequality and wants to “eat the rich”, but there is nothing like a political majority. IMO technological change and structural economic innovations such as globalization have been a huge driver of economic trends in modern times, and there is just no credible prediction of what is going to happen.