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Evolution: evolution is a powerful algorithm that creates successful and subtle designs using relatively dumb steps. Genetic evolution. The importance and difficulty of copying. A-life and genetic algorithms. What is highly conserved. Developmental lock-in: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The sessile strategy: absence of “progress”, value of conservatism. The importance of mutation, diversity, sex, outbreeding, modularity and hierarchy.

The nature of evolutionary truth. Explanatory and predictive power, generality. vs. specificity. Falsifiability. The form of evolutionary argument. stable strategy. Just-so stories. Appeal to current causes is preferable, but special circumstances were likely crucial at important points such as organizational increases.

Cultural evolution. Parallel structure to genetic, point by point. Why v.s. how it should be. The importance of cultural boundaries. What about memes? Genetic/cultural co-evolution. Evolutionary truth again: group selection.

Reason as an interpreter of the unconscious mind. Feelings in the body. Major emotional dimensions. Some feeling names are really interpretations, e.g. feelings of happiness and safety are due to belonging. That may be true, but it's just a guess.

Happiness: The unimportance of happiness, happiness v.s. doing the right thing.

Incompetence, deception and self-deception. Don't attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. Cognitive and fundamental limitations. Our denial (true self-deception) Gestalting, the opposite of rationalizing. Does someone else's story ring true? Why do we send nonverbals? The narrative fallacy. Does my narrative here ring true so far? Truth is beauty, beauty truth.

Reproduction and family. Mate selection in animals. The importance of hard-to-fake signals. Conflicts and coincidences of interest in the family. Family structure is strongly conserved. Family culture, secret sauce, post-reproductive program and mentoring.

Competition and cooperation. What is the nature of human competition? In-group v.s. out-group. The importance of leadership and hierarchy. Altruism, cheating, religion.

Black swan hunters, prestige. Peer approval and reinforcement. elders.

Striving for positional goods: status and power. Dominance in animals. Conspicuous consumption. Status displays altruistic? The very rich and very powerful don't behave like the very hungry: we don't strive for power to just gain resources.

Modern times Demographic transition. Economics: invisible hands and big mistakes. Bubbles, fads, cults and market failure. The rich get richer. Culture, media and the star system.

Conclusions: back to evolution, why vs. how it should be. It's good to be as smart as we can. Politics vs. policy: evolutionary lock-in. The precautionary principle? The perils of excess: collective v.s. individual, reality-denying conservatism vs. naiveté. Unintended consequences, idealism and utopianism. Back to psychology, what does it feel like to live in this world? Happiness? Survival? I'll take both.


The big theme is “why do people do things that make themselves unhappy?” This is the thread that ties together all the themes:

  • To understand this you need to go back 4 billion years. How does evolution work?
  • It's vitally important to only change things a little bit. Both instincts and cultural norms encourage general conservatism, and both of these tend to act unconsciously at the emotional and motivational level. Although we may think that we could improve on the past a lot, somehow we end up not changing much.
  • Cognitive limitations and self-deception. We think we are making decisions that will make us happy, but we are terrible at predicting the outcome. This is partly because prediction is hard, but there seems to be various self-deceptions too. There is strong unconscious influence on our decision-making, and our unconscious often has a different agenda than our conscious one.
  • Our decision-making abilities are weak, but this is not so important at the cultural level as long as many people are trying many different things. It takes a certain heedlessness to depart from a custom that nobody knows all the benefits of, and in hindsight we may make a decision that seems foolish. Culture benefits when individuals take risks.
  • Do does “deception” of others and out-group competition have happiness paradoxes? Certainly feeling deceived or excluded is painful, but is there a self-deception angle?
  • Culture encourages self-sacrificing behavior that benefits the polity at the cost of individual safety and reproductive success. Fortunately for our happiness, pro-social acts feel good. In addition to advocating overt altruism, there is also the sneaky aspect of social striving. Striving reduces happiness but benefits the polity. Modern education and media has increased striving by greatly widening the horizon of social referencing.
  • Few can win the referencing game, but we feel like status will make us happier or increase our reproductive success. It seems that to some degree modern culture has “sublimated” the reproductive aspect of status/dominance seen in animals and redirected it to its own ends. Similarly, we are driven to acquire resources (possessions), and status does increase wealth, but once we have adequate food, clothing and shelter, there are diminishing returns.
  • Western culture has increased intra-cultural competition and striving, and has formalized cooperation as economic transactions. This has been hugely successful in generating wealth (and thus power), but has vaporized the traditional community structure into nuclear families, forgoing the gratification and support that community offers. People can now cooperate without having any relationship, so now people can and often do get by without any close relationships, let alone a community of shared values.
  • Simple survival has gotten too easy, so culture has been freed to spin off in directions that don't directly benefit the individual. The polity may benefit from extremes of wealth, complexity and specialization, but in the individual this causes only envy and bafflement.

The unconscious, happiness, cultural evolution, cognitive and fundamental limitations, modern times Evolution as algorithm, genetic vs. cultural evolution, copying and conservatism.

Research: modularity (genes vs. memes, speciation and cultural boundaries) and hierarchy. Wisdom of the masses. Wisdom of the unconscious. Sociology, status and power. Lifespan development and post-reproductive program.

Social and psychological regularities demand evolutionary explanations.

Lots of stuff that seems self-destructive or irrational actually makes evolutionary sense at the population level in the context of social evolution. The importance of copying (imitation). Conservatism is the basic strategy (sessile strategy.) Silent evidence. It may seem that not changing is the natural state of affairs, but a lot is going on behind the scenes to implement it.

Thinking is like an iceberg, the bulk of it is below the waterline of consciousness. Unconscious doesn't imply irrational (though it may be) and it doesn't rule out free will or imply behavioral determinism. Unconscious means intuitive and emotional. Emotions are often rational. Often we can catch unconscious thought rationally pursuing an unconscious agenda.

The primary function of conscious thought is inventing stories. Some of these stories are theories that could help to predict the future or suggest action, but consciousness is mainly called on to build persuasive stories, so persuasion is emphasized over balance and rigor (confirmation bias, narrative fallacy.)

We've evolved to cope with serious limitations on the power of reason: cognitive, scanty and low-quality information, fundamental unpredictability (especially of social phenomena.) Generally we ignore and deny this. We think it was skill rather than luck when something works, and we deny that we are conformist. Even though nobody understands why things happened, what is going on, or what will happen next, social evolution gleans working solutions from the muck of confusion, surmise and deception.

The real skill in leadership is not in having good ideas or even recognizing good ideas, but in being persuasive and building influence, aggregating a mass of people who can work together to solve unpredictable problems with retrospectively obvious solutions (e.g. invasion), and can do something that might work in cases where nobody knows. It is necessary to have a stable culture, and political boundaries can reinforce cultural boundaries. Political empire-building spreads successful cultures.

Get at the psychological reality of this stuff. What does it feel like and how does it work. e.g. the social emotions, pride, envy, etc.

Look at economics too. The masses can be wiser or dumber than the individual.

Something funny has happened in modern times. Demographic transition, exaggerated consumption, mass media. Herd mentality can lead to runaway adoption of cultural variants that don't work. Life has gotten too easy, rendering status signals pointless. But self-sacrifice to advance culture continues to snowball.

Happiness is widely misunderstood. We think that our decisions are optimizing our happiness or our satisfaction, but our unconscious is pursuing an unconscious agenda, and that agenda is not necessarily happiness or even satisfaction (e.g. mate selection), and may be genuinely altruistic (i.e. self-sacrificing.)

Psychology: Freud unconscious, Adler striving, Jung racial unconscious, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. Cognitive psychology, judgment and decision, happiness. Internal v.s. external attribution, depressive realism, the psychological immune system.


Robert MacLachlan, 2011/11/07 08:09

This was the outline for a book on the Human Condition, before I decided to spin this off as a Wiki to recruit more contributors. This is all very preliminary, but the idea is to have a main conceptual flow of “chapters”, unified by the themes across chapters.

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story/outline.txt · Last modified: 2011/11/07 08:06 by ram