Category: Evolutionary

The Teeming Masses and Bigotry

A new 14-year-old is an odd place to begin with a discussion of nature and nurture, but my new 14-year-old set me off on the topic of the is-ought barrier when we were discussing the hows and whys of his incredibly athletic cat, who is a natural born killer. 500 million birds each year! It was all theoretical because our cats are indoor only; a dozen moths and flies, maybe.

But related is “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact,” a fascinating study by Hodson and Busseri at Brock University in Canada, which apparently is also involved in the NASA Curiosity project. The study suggests that stupidity (in the form of low g or “general intelligence”) leads to right-wing ideals, which is perhaps comforting to those opposed to right-wing ideals but has limited utility otherwise.  Conservatives, of course, shot at the messenger while liberals endorsed it.

Drilling down into the results reveals some intricacies, however. Low g or IQ correlated with low abstract thinking and also with limited contact with social groups that were not like-minded. This leads, in turn, to questions about g and its stability as a measure: for instance, the Flynn Effect might be explained by a broadly more stimulating environment for individuals. Now, let’s say that the stimulating environment is a result of greater social contact and social requirements for intelligence as manifested through school and complex interactions in urban and suburban environments (as distinct from isolated agrarian communities in the past). After all, one explanation for enhanced verbal and mathematical psychometric performance among Ashkenazi Jews is the so-called “shtetl” effect wherein urban channeling and genetic isolation might have produced a “founder effect” with selective pressure towards certain capabilities. Could the same be true of the broader community? Are we getting smarter because of complex interactions?

If this is the case, then we should see patterns of conservatism where population density is low while more liberal attitudes prevail in higher density settings. And we largely do in America and most of Western Europe, where urban clusters tend towards more liberal attitudes. The only problem with this theory is that measurable IQ may not correlate with urban density.

Or does it?

On the Structure of Brian Eno

I recently came across an ancient document, older than my son, dating to 1994 when I had a brief FAX-based exchange of communiques with Brian Eno, the English eclectic electronic musician and producer of everything from Bowie’s Low through to U2’s Joshua Tree and Jane Siberry. Eno had been pointed at one of my colleague’s efforts (Eric in the FAXes, below) at using models of RNA replication to create music by the editor of Whole Earth Catalog who saw Eric present at an Artificial Life conference. I was doing other, somewhat related work, and Eric allowed me to correspond with Mr. Eno. I did, resulting in a brief round of FAXes (email was fairly new to the non-specialist in 1994).

I later dropped off a copy of a research paper I had written at his London office and he was summoned down from an office/loft and shook his head in the negative about me. I was shown the door by the receptionist.

Below is my last part of the FAX interchange. Due to copyright and privacy concerns, I’ll only show my part of the exchange (and, yes, I misspelled “Britain”). Notably, Brian still talks about the structure of music and art in recent interviews.

The Sooner We Are All Mongrels, the Better

E.O. Wilson charges across the is-ought barrier with a zeal undiminished by his advancing years and promotes genetic diversity as a moral good in The Social Conquest of Earth:

Perhaps it is time…to adopt a new ethic of racial and hereditary variation, one that places value on the whole of diversity rather than on the differences composing the diversity. It would give proper measure to our species’ genetic variation as an asset, prized for the adaptability it provides all of us during an increasingly uncertain future. Humanity is strengthened by a broad portfolio of genes that can generate new talents, additional resistance to diseases, and perhaps even new ways of seeing reality. For scientific as well as moral reasons, we should learn to promote human biological diversity for its own sake instead of using it to justify prejudice and conflict.

This follows an analysis of the relative genetic differences between various racial groups of humans, concluding that subsaharan Africa contains the highest genetic diversity among human groups. Yet almost everything in our social and biological history suggests that we have formed social structures specifically to prevent out-breeding and limit the expansion of our genetic pool. This has always been a thorny subject for selfish genetics: why risk pairing your alleles with unknowns guessed at through proximal sexual clues like body symmetry or the quality of giant peacock tails? The risk of outbreeding is apparently lower than the risk of diverse infectious agents according to a common current theory, but we also see culture as overriding even the strongest outbreeding motivation by imposing mating rules based on familial and tribal power struggles. At the worst, we even see inbreeding depression in populations that consolidate power through close marriages (look at the sex-linked defect lineages in European royal families) or through long religious prohibitions on marrying outside of relatively small populations of the faithful. A few years back there was even a suggestion promoted in the popular press that autism might be caused by assortative mating by geeks and computer programmers.

We should all be latte colored or at least mongrels. The alternative is too much like what happens to highly bred dogs:

Hundreds of different dog breeds have now been established although the majority have only come into existence in the last two centuries. These breeds have largely been generated by the selection of gross phenotypic attributes particularly suited for work or decorative purposes, many being encoded by single gene mutations. A consequence of such a severe selection and inbreeding history is that many breeds have come from a relatively restricted gene pool.

As expected, the mongrels have the highest number of different alleles (22 out of 30 possible alleles tested).

But back to Wilson and the is-ought barrier: should we be obligated to promote genetic diversity across the species? There are several arguments embedded in Wilson’s statements that we can unpack:

  1. The species, as a whole, will be more likely to “generate new talents, [resist] diseases, and [create new ways of seeing reality].”
  2. Diversity will not be seen as a source of difference and conflict, and therefore will reduce conflicts based on differences.

So, for (1), can we really see this as a moral good for any individual or couple? Taken to the extreme, the guidance would suggest preferential mating with those most genetically diverse or at least different from you. Stuck on the “is” side of the barrier, however, there are also the standard proximate drivers for sexual attraction and the more “global” motivation for promoting species-level diversity might override those drivers. The net effect would probably be insignificant, however, because we can assume that affairs of the heart would kick in and minimize the impact. Still, it is a bit of an odd moral good to contemplate in its rawest form. More clarifying, however, might be the argument that immigration policies can have a similar effect over time because propinquity is the mother of all desire.

John Gray on Jonathan Haidt

Excellent discussion (and review) of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by John Gray in The New Republic. Gray is skeptical of intellectual history but even more skeptical of scientism, or the attempt to apply scientific reasoning to the complexities of human politics. Summing up concerning evolutionary psychology:

Haidt’s attempt to apply evolutionary psychology is yet one more example of the failures of scientism. There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

E.O. Wilson, Sam Harris, and David Sloan Wilson undoubtedly also included. The trouble arises in trying to connect the dots in too simple a contour. Haidt’s observations about flavors of moral feelings among liberals and conservatives is interesting and perhaps useful. But, as Gray suggests, it is where this naturalism ignores the cascading complexities of history that trouble arises. And when it tries to crawl onto the shores of policy and normative ethics, Gray takes even greater exception; the is-ought barrier is unassailable.

There are some assumptions by Gray that could use some critiquing. He quotes Haidt’s favorable perspective on utilitarianism and contrasts it with Berlin’s values pluralism. Gray is skeptical that culture war topics like abortion or gay rights can be cast into a utilitarian form and are better entertained through a recognition that a divergent moral landscape is the inevitable product of the complexities that culture hath wrought. What ought to be done can’t be converged on in any coherent manner because of exactly the kinds of intuitions that Haidt has identified as leading to divergence. While not supporting utilitarianism, I think Gray does a disservice to the moral evolution that we can observe over time, the greatest driver of which is media depictions that play on our natural tendencies towards empathy (Gray chuckles a bit at Haidt’s suggestion that members of Congress get together for garden parties, but building familiarity against contempt is what Haidt is advocating). The dots certainly don’t resolve into simple contours, but stepping back from the page, there are strongly repeating patterns that are closely tied to our evolutionary heritage as social animals. In some cases these resolve into Haidt’s typology of fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, but in each case there are stronger currents just below them.

Eusociality, Errors, and Behavioral Plasticity

I encountered an error in E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth where the authors intended to assert an alternative to “kin selection” but instead repeated “multilevel selection,” which is precisely what the authors wanted to draw a distinction with. I am sympathetic, however, if for no other reason than I keep finding errors and issues with my own books and papers.

The critical technical discussion from Nature concerning the topic is available here. As technical discussion, the issues debated are fraught with details like how halictid bees appear to live socially, but are in fact solitary animals that co-exist in tunnel arrangements.

Despite the focus on “spring-loaded traits” as determiners for haplodiploid animals like bees and wasps, the problem of big-brained behavioral plasticity keeps coming up in Wilson’s book. Humanity is a pinnacle because of taming fire, because of the relative levels of energy available in animal flesh versus plant matter, and because of our ability to outrun prey over long distances (yes, our identity emerges from marathon running). But these are solutions that correlate with the rapid growth of our craniums.

So if behavioral plasticity is so very central to who we are, we are faced with an awfully complex problem in trying to simulate that behavior. We can expect that there must be phalanxes of genes involved in setting our developmental path (our nature and the substrate for our nurture). We should, indeed, expect that almost no cognitive capacity is governed by a small set of genes, and that all the relevant genes work in networks through polygeny, epistasis, and related effects (pleiotropy). And we can expect no easy answers as a result, except to assert that AI is exactly as hard as we should have expected, and progress will be inevitably slow in understanding the mind, the brain, and the way we interact.

Brain Size and Fitness

An interesting data point taken from E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth: bigger brains mean better adaptation to new environments. That seems trivial in a way because it is part of the “folk” evolutionary theory that seems to flow naturally from the assumption of human uniqueness and our ostensive position at the apex of the evolutionary mountain.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A very narrowly adapted organism could conceivably outcompete an intelligent generalist. The generalist requires massive physiological commitments to the energetic requirements of behavioral plasticity. The specialist is economical, efficient. So it has largely been an article of projective faith in folk theory that the human condition is explainable.

So it is always refreshing when I learn that there is empirical evidence that brings clarity to issues like this:

Big brains are hypothesized to enhance survival of animals by facilitating flexible cognitive responses that buffer individuals against environmental stresses. Although this theory receives partial support from the finding that brain size limits the capacity of animals to behaviourally respond to environmental challenges, the hypothesis that large brains are associated with reduced mortality has never been empirically tested. Using extensive information on avian adult mortality from natural populations, we show here that species with larger brains, relative to their body size, experience lower mortality than species with smaller brains, supporting the general importance of the cognitive buffer hypothesis in the evolution of large brains.

From Sol et. al., Big-brained birds survive better in nature. The emphasis in the title on “nature” suggests that perhaps they fail in captivity? Avian ennui?

Nesting and Spring-loaded Parasitism

While enjoying your eggs, you should consider what primitive social insects do with theirs. Why? Because it may be essential to our understanding of social behavior and, hence, the notion of moral and ethical behavior. I’m reading Nowak, Tarnita, and E.O. Wilson’s 2010 article (and 43 pages of supporting materials), “The evolution of eusociality” from Nature (466/doi:10.1038/nature09205).

This is a contentious paper, I should add, because it postulates “multilevel selection” that operate at the group or species level. It is remarkable in several ways. First, it uses mathematical terminology to explain aspects if the theory of eusociality (literally: “good sociality” but, theoretically, the highest levels of social interaction) that we rarely see in papers on evolutionary theory. Specifically, ideas like “global updating” are introduced to explain why traditional methods of explaining eusociality are plagued by false assumptions about the spatial distribution of mating opportunities. I’m reminded of my own critique of the microevolution versus macroevolution distinction that pervades anti-evolution arguments: why would nature (or God for that matter) prevent hybridization of species while making it easy for genetic drift within a species? We either have a failure of imagination, the deliberate introduction of barriers to hybridization just to fool all of us or maintain a prescribed order, or we have a continuous transition from micro to macro effects (hint: there is actually no real distinction).

But back to eggs. E.O. Wilson and colleagues suggest that the earliest forms of sociality were among the parasitic wasps, like the Tarantula Hawk. Accumulate prey, stuff eggs into them, and then move on. Next, icky stuff happens in the prey. One allele change can turn the move on behavior off when the local environment is sufficiently rich, however, and then moms and offspring hang around in colonies together. Not mathematical is the use of “spring-loaded pre-adaptations” to describe this transition. The loss of wings among worker ants is a spring-loaded trait, as is the inability of fire ants to recognize aliens from other colonies; they can’t go anywhere or accurately target others for attack.

The 43 pages of supporting materials demonstrates that modern scientific theories, like the “Dark Matter” work previously described, are just not very simple. They are, arguably, just simple enough and no more so. Still, the more than 130 evolutionary biologists who objected to the Wilson paper argue that the previous theory (kin selection) was a simple solution that demanded no additional complexity. The naked mole rat and termites may object, but perhaps a synthesis is forthcoming.

Creativity and Proximate Causation

Combining aspects of the previous posts, what proximate mechanisms might be relevant to the notion of artistic fitness? Scott Barry Kauffman at rounds up some of the most interesting recent research and thinking on this topic in his post, Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius?

Touching on work by luminaries like Susan Blackmore and others, Scott drives from personality assessment concepts down through the role of dopamine in trying to identify whether there is a spectrum of observable traits that are linked to creativity and artistic achievement.


Daniel Nettle and Helen Clegg found that apophenia was positively related to a higher number of sexual partners for both men and women, and this relationship was explained by artistic creative activity. Similarly, in a more recent study conducted by Helen Cleff, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell, they found that more successful male artists (who are presumably higher in apophenia) had more sexual partners than less successful male artists.

Apophenia means seeing patterns in the environment where none may be present, a central theme in my second novel, Signals and Noise.

We can hypothesize also, based on the distribution from schizophrenia through schizotypy, through to “normal,” that there must be a large complement of interacting genes involved in these traits. This is supported by the evidence of genetic predispositions for schizophrenia, for instance, but also by the frustrating lack of success in identifying the genes that are involved.  This distribution may, in fact, be one of the most critical aspects of what it means to be human:

Were it not for those “disordered” genes, you wouldn’t have extremely creative, successful people.  Being in the absolute middle of every trait spectrum, not too extreme in any one direction, makes you balanced, but rather boring.  The tails of the spectrum, or the fringe, is where all the exciting stuff happens.  Some of the exciting stuff goes uncontrolled and ends up being a psychological disorder, but some of those people with the traits that define Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, ADHD, and other psychological conditions, have the fortunate gift of high cognitive control paired with those traits, and end up being the creative geniuses that we admire, aspire to be like, and desperately need in this world.

Sex and Error

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the introduction to my (foster) father’s 1991 Animal Behavior treatise, On the Role of Males (don’t worry guys, we get to expurgate genetic errors):

The value of males to a species has often been regarded as enigmatic. An all-female, parthenogenetic population has significant theoretical advantages over a population that must reproduce sexually. But if sexuality is to be advocated as highly advantageous to the species, the questions surrounding gender differentiation must not be confused with the questions concerning the value of sex. Two distinct genders are not necessary to engage sexual recombination. A broad array of hypotheses for the evolution and persistence of sexuality appears in Michod & Levin (1988), yet for all of the postulated arguments, males are unnecessary. While purpose cannot always be easily ascribed to a specific trait or behavior, the converse can be argued with confidence. The widespread, common existence of a specific trait, behavior or caste insures that the persistence of the attribute possesses some fundamental purpose.

Protracted demonstrations of competitive vigor are common in males, especially so in polygynous species. Darwin (1874) outlined in detail the virtual ubiquity of male aggressive “pugnacity” in animals, concluding that “It is incredible that all this should be purposeless” (1874, p. 615). The hypotheses to be argued here are threefold: (1) males are an auxiliary, relatively sacrificial sex of enhanced fragility, whose demonstrations of competitive vigor operate to expose, exaggerate, and expurgate significant gene error from the germline, (2) the aggressively competitive behavior of polygynous males is but one component of a hierarchy of genetic information assurance mechanisms that must be inevitably evolved, and (3) gene defect expurgation from the germline greatly accelerates the evolutionary optimization, and thus the competitiveness, of the species.