Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 14, 2018

Turning cheesecake into a weapon of war

Filed under: Cultural Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology — Razib Khan @ 10:23 pm

Steven Pinker and many other evolutionary psychologists believe that music is cognitive cheesecake. That is, we have a lot of cognitive faculties working in concert, and musical appreciation and ability emerge out of the synthesis. But there wasn’t direct selection for music, as such. Musical appreciation then may not be adaptive.

And yet like reading and writing music clearly co-opts part of the human brain in terms of functional localization. There are people with brain injuries who can not speak well who nevertheless can sing well, and can communicate through song.

But perhaps most important, just because a trait did not emerge due to natural selection, does not entail that it might not be subject to later selection. One can make arguments that musical ability was adaptive at some point in human existence on the individual scale. But I have something else in mind: music is functionally important in war. Military marching bands did not arise coincidentally, music as an accompaniment to the march and a way to communicate and rouse the troops to action have been part and parcel of winning and executing battle. Music triggered social change in the 1960s.

I think much the same is probably true of religion.  My own position is that the shamanic/primal form of religious belief bubbles up out of our cognitive architecture as a side effect of other processes. But this byproduct can be co-opted by cultural evolutionary selection, and reshaped into something with functional utility.

September 24, 2017

The cuckoldry rate in complex agricultural societies is probably ~1%

Filed under: Cuckoldry,Evolutionary Psychology — Razib Khan @ 8:28 pm

One of the most interesting and strange things I’ve ever posted about has to do with extra-pair paternity rates. Basically, the rate of cuckoldry.

I first got interested in the topic because people get bringing up the chestnut that 10% of children have misattributed biological paternity. That is, their biological father is different than the father who raises them. This is a “fact” I’ve encountered from many biologists and the public. But like the “fact” that you use only 10% of your brain, this seems more an infectious meme than a true fact.

The problem with ascertaining paternity is to get a representative sample. And, to get deep time depth you need good genealogical records. With genetic analysis new methods also came to the fore: analyzing the distribution of Y chromosomes within a lineage.

As far back as the middle 2000s Anderson had published How Well Does Paternity Confidence Match Actual Paternity?, which surveyed the literature and found that the rate of misattributed paternity was closer to a few percent than 10%. Later work found results closer to ~1% in places like Western Europe.

A new paper out of the Netherlands confirms this figure. This turns out to be the same proportion as in Flanders, just to the south. The authors wanted to compare the results with Flanders because it is an adjacent area with the same ethnicity (Dutch), but which went through industrialization much more quickly. Therefore it was a test of hypotheses about urbanization and extra-pair paternity.

How generalizable are these results? It seems entirely likely that the 1% figure applies across the Eurasian oikoumene (genotyping and surname analysis in China has found a similar number). And yet if extra-pair paternity is so low why are there so many cultural strictures on mate guarding in these societies?

Much of the above paper discusses the evolutionary psychological mechanisms which evolved to combat cuckoldry and the arms race with occurred as females sought “higher quality” sperm donors. In short, if paternity uncertainty is so minimal then presumably this is not a major recent evolutionary pressure.

The curious thing about these results, which are replicated in numerous studies, is the denial they elicit. There is an online “cuckold community” which does not appreciate that their fetish is not as common as the old 10% number implies (I know about this community due to referrals from message boards). Then there are “men’s rights” activists, who simply can’t believe that women exhibit such fidelity. Finally, there are the sorts who wish to tear down bourgeois sexual norms, and valorize a past which did not exist.

But the ultimate question has to do with human nature and modal behaviors in the past and across different societies. These results establish that low misattributed paternity societies can exist at equilibrium and that they are rather common. They do not establish this was the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.” We simply don’t know enough about this topic, but, I do think there needs to be an appropriate synthesis between the evolutionary psychological outlook exemplified by The Blank Slate and the cognitively informed behavioral ecology found in The Secret of Our Success.

My own suspicion is that human cultures and behavioral scripts exhibit discrete modalities, but we’re mildly flexible. An economistic “modes of production” analysis would probably smoke out differences. More precisely I think the more economic independence that women in a society have the more likely paternity certainty is going to be a major issue because many men will reduce their investment to any given offspring. Although such economic independence is often conceived of as a modern development in gender relations, there are actually societies where women have been the dominant primary producers, because of a less intensive, more extensive, sort of agriculture (ergo, less premium on physical strength).

July 25, 2012

Rousseau vs. Descartes & incest

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Evolutionary Psychology,Sociology — Razib Khan @ 12:57 am

Greta Scacchi, cousin-lover

There has been some discussion in the comments why the posts on inbreeding are getting so much attention. I think this is a milder form of the same sort of curiosity about why young males have a fascination with pornography: we are obsessed with sex. This is not an arbitrary fascination, nor is it a loss of innocence which may have been avoided. Sex is our raison d’etre as sexual organisms. Evolutionary psychology gets a bad reputation for positing adaptive explanations for everything under the sun, from dancing to migraines. But, if there is anything which is the target of adaptive constraint and selective pressures, it is the suite of traits which relate to sex and mating in a direction fashion. It is sometimes stated that sex is about power, but the bigger reality is that power is about sex.

But reducing human behavior purely to one explanatory framework is too reductive even for me. An individualist framework where singular males and females operate as evolutionary versions of rational H. economicus, always optimizing fitness through subterfuge and inducement, leaves something to be desired in characterizing the true rich ...

May 29, 2012

H. Allen Orr, most influential evolutionary biologist of all time?

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology — Razib Khan @ 7:51 pm

A reader reminded me of an amusing paper, Who Likes Evolution? Dissociation Of Human Evolution Versus Evolutionary Psychology. The gist of the results are below (I added some clarification):

The propositions to gauge acceptance of evolutionary psychology revolve around sex differences. One can argue whether this is an appropriate measure, but to a first approximation I think it gets to the heart of the matter. There are deep evolutionary genetic (number and size of gametes) and anatomical reasons to assume that sex differences in behavior are not exclusively a function of cultural variation. One can argue about the details of the inferences that evolutionary psychology makes (I think it is subject to the problems rife in psychology as a whole), but I don’t think its ultimate underpinning in sociobiology is crazy.

Nevertheless, I do think there are some empirical results which are robust enough across a range of studies and observations that we move from theoretical likelihood to concrete assessment of the probability of a particular sex difference. For example, the idea that males on average all things equal tend to exhibit more aggression than females. To ...

March 31, 2012

Jonathan Haidt & Robert Wright: crazy delicious

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology,Jonathan Haidt — Razib Khan @ 4:21 pm

Last night I listened to a very long discussion between Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, and Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you have been reading my weblog for years there may not be much new, but if you haven’t, then you’ll encounter a lot of novel information, in particular from Jonathan Haidt. I was intrigued by Haidt’s references to evolutionary and anthropology, and I immediately noticed on Twitter that of the 17 people he follows, two are John Hawks and Paul Bloom. John is a friend, and Paul Bloom has been highly influential in my own thinking about cognitive psychology (see Descarte’s Baby). Additionally, many of the other “shout outs” which Haidt makes are familiar to me as well (e.g., Scott Atran, the neo-functionalism of David Sloan Wilson, etc.).

In lieu of a conventional blog post here a list of comments, reacting mostly to Haidt’s various assertions.

- The biggest “bombshell” that Haidt drops is his empirical finding that when people of a given political ideology, going from very liberal to very conservative, are asked to model the opinions of other people ...

December 23, 2011

The evolutionary necessity of lying

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology,Sociobiology — Razib Khan @ 9:11 am

John Horgan has a long review of Robert Trivers’ long overdue book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. I really don’t care how well Trivers analyzed the topic, this is such a rich and important issue that I can’t help but think he must have hit some important mines of insight. I haven’t read The Folly of Fools, but I can recommend Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers. It’s not just a compilation of papers, there are biographical chapters which flesh out the context behind a particular idea at a given time. Trivers also shows up prominently in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate and Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species.

November 28, 2011

The New York Times on violence and Pinker

The New York Times has a short piece on Steven Pinker up. Nothing too new to long time followers of the man and his work. I would like to point readers to the fact that Steven Pinker has a F.A.Q. up for The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He links to my post, Relative angels and absolute demons, as supporting his dismissal of Elizabeth Kolbert’s review in The New Yorker. I have to admit that I find much, though not all, of the coverage of science in The New Yorker to exhibit some of the more annoying stereotypical caricatures of humanists when confronting the specter of natural philosophy.

I should also mention I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature over Thanksgiving. I’m only ~20% through it, and probably won’t finish until Christmas season gets into high gear, but so far it’s a huge mess. In both a good way, and a bad way. The good way is that it’s incredibly rich in its bibliography, with fascinating facts strewn about the path of the narrative. The bad way is that so far it lacks the tightness of  The Blank Slate or The Language Instinct in terms of argument. This may change. Finally, I think I should mention that Pinker has already addressed some of the criticisms of his methodologies brought up in the comments sections of my posts. Those who have specific critiques probably should read the book, because he seems to try sincerely to address those. Or at least they should address those critiques to people who have bothered to read the book.

July 21, 2011

The end of evolutionary psychology

A new paper in PLoS Biology is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off. Evolutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology:

None of the aforementioned scientific developments render evolutionary psychology unfeasible; they merely require that EP should change its daily practice. The key concepts of EP have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable. A modern EP would embrace a broader, more open, and multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines. Such a field would embrace the challenge of exploring empirically, for instance, to what extent human cognition is domain-general or domain specific, under what circumstances human behaviour is adaptive, how best to explain variation in human behaviour and cognition. The evidence from adjacent disciplines suggests that, if EP can reconsider its basic tenets, it will flourish as a scientific discipline.

July 6, 2011

Is Chris Stringer a multi-regionalist?

In an interesting piece in The Guardian on possible proto-gorilla/proto-human hybridization, the journalist lobs this grenade:

But now that the once popular “single-origin model” of the evolution of Homo sapiens has been disproved, and the previously controversial “multiregional hypothesis” has been proven by DNA evidence, perhaps we need a rethink. According to the multiregional hypothesis all modern people, including modern Africans, are the descendents of breeding and hybridising between separate ancestral groups, all at various stages of evolutionary development.

Evolutionary lice research has helped palaeoanthropologists, including Stringer, to embrace the multi-regional hypothesis. “I’m sure there is plenty more to come from the lice research,” he told me. We know that it took 4m years, 5-9m years ago, for our ancestors to completely split from archaic chimps. During that time hybrids would have been born that mated both with our ancestors and ancestral chimps.

The issue here is semantics. I think regular readers of this weblog will know to be more cautious than to contend that the “single-origin model” of our species has been “disproved,” while its inverse has been “proven.” Those are strong words in science. Additionally, I seriously doubt that Chris Stringer would identify as a multi-regionalist. Some wires ...

April 28, 2011

Love and arranged marriage

Filed under: Behavior Genetics,Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology — Razib Khan @ 11:46 pm

In the wake of yesterday’s review of a paper on heritable variance in trait preferences realized in romantic partners I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this new study out of PLoS ONE, Evolutionary History of Hunter-Gatherer Marriage Practices. It’s actually a pretty thin piece of work in all honesty from what I can tell. They wanted to query ancestral ranges of marriage patterns by mapping the cultural variation in customs onto a phylogenetic tree. To generate that tree they took mtDNA sequences, which to me seems kind of old school. Using the cultural patterns present in living hunter-gatherer groups they presumed they could infer the ancestral state.

So combining these two sources of data they generated this:

They conclude:

Arranged marriages are inferred to go back at least to first modern human migrations out of Africa. Reconstructions are equivocal on whether or not earlier human marriages were arranged because several African hunter-gatherers have courtship marriages. Phylogenetic reconstructions suggest that marriages in early ancestral human societies probably had low levels of polygyny (low reproductive skew) and reciprocal exchanges between the families of marital partners (i.e., brideservice or brideprice).

There’s an ...

Love is not a hardwired battlefield

Filed under: Evolution,Evolutionary Psychology,Mate Choice,Psychology — Razib Khan @ 1:59 am

ResearchBlogging.orgJudging by some of the amusing search queries I find every Friday people have a wide range of tastes and fetishes when it comes to pornography. From what I can tell the realized phenotypic interval in mate choice is less varied and eye-opening, but exists nonetheless. Why? Is there a rhyme or reason, or is it simply random chance and the necessity of the biological clock ticking? These are not issues which aren’t discussed or mooted thoroughly regularly. The popular science literature is littered with hypotheses from social and evolutionary psychology. How else could you have a books such as The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature and Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. This is sexy science by definition. Not Physics Letters.

There are three broad issues which have interested me in the domain of attraction and evolution. First, what is the character of cultural universals of beauty rooted in biological preferences? Second, what is the character of cultural variation in beauty rooted in contingencies or local conditions? And third, what are the genetic and non-genetic factors in individual mate preference? In this post I’ll ...

February 3, 2011

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Link to review: Mother Nature: a complicated and morally ambivalent tale

Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species

Link to review: Mother Nature: a complicated and morally ambivalent tale

December 15, 2010

Incest vs. polygamy

Filed under: Culture,Evolutionary Psychology,Social Biology — Razib Khan @ 1:31 am

Today in Slate there’s an argument for why society should discourage first-degree incest. The main thrust of the piece seems to be broadly utilitarian, in that incest is destructive to the family unit and society has a rational motive in discouraging the practice. The reason that the argument is even made is because of analogies that some social conservatives make between incest and gay marriage. I’m not too interested in the argument against first-degree incest, because I think this is a practice which is aberrant because there are biological dispositions most humans have which make it unthinkable.* Though the genetic reasons are broadly well known, Steven Pinker reports on the psychological mechanisms which enforce the taboos in The Blank Slate.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. The first-degree incest taboos can be violated in the case of royal families which wish to preserve and accentuate their divine genealogical essence. This was famously well known in ancient Egypt down to the Roman conquest, but one also found the practice in Hawaii. In rural Egypt apparently brother-sister marriage continued among commoners (who presumably emulated the elites) down to the Roman period. Human nature has dispositions in many cases which are not “hard-wired.” But the disposition in this case is so strong that I believe arguing about the legality of consensual adult incest is an academic matter. The discussion is only surfacing because of its possible relevance to another issue, gay marriage.

Polygamy though is a different case. Here the ethnography seems to be clear that though the majority of men in the majority of societies did not practice polygamy, in most cultures polygamy was acceptable, and commonly practiced by high status males. In many cases polygamy was the preferred ideal, which was not attainable for the typical male due to economic constraints. Only with the spread of Western-normative mongamous customs, inherited from the Greeks and Romans, has polygamy been marginalized.

But we may be better for it. Polygamy’s many wives don’t capture ‘market value’:

Economist Shoshana Grossbard admits she was naive when she did her doctoral thesis on polygamy more than 30 years ago at the University of Chicago.

Then, she believed that a simple supply-and-demand analysis would explain the economics of polygamous societies.

Besides, she says, “I thought it was cool to say that polygamy might be advantageous to women and repeat what Gary Becker (her thesis adviser and Nobel laureate) has said.”

Polygamous societies have a higher frequency of arranged marriages. It’s not surprising, says Grossbard. Young women aren’t likely to choose old men for husbands, plus men find young wives easier to control.

Of course, that increases the likelihood of early widowhood and financial hardship.

In societies where a bride price is paid, women don’t “capture their increased market value.” Instead, she says, potential husbands pay the fathers. No money goes to the bride.

Divorce tends to be easier in polygamous societies. The threat of it keeps women in line and it allows men to shed wives who are too old or noncompliant.

Child custody almost always is the right of the father.

Isolating women makes it more difficult for them to escape and makes them even more financially dependent on their husbands.

As beautiful as the harem in Grenada’s Alhambra is, Grossbard says, “The whole institution is typical of polygamous societies.”

There, eunuchs – castrated men – guard the wives.

There are variations in the nature of polygamy. My understanding is that in some African societies women in polygamous relationships have their own independent economic life, and the male is a transient between matrifocal households. The opposite extreme occurs in Muslim societies where women are secluded from men and denied from participation in public life.

In any case, unlike first-degree incest or gay marriage, polygamy does remain rather common, and legal, in much of the world:


One must note that in some nations, such as India, polygamy is only legal for minorities for which it is a traditional custom. That being said, in many nations where it is legal, it is not always common, nor is it socially acceptable in many circles.

But it is notable to me that gay marriage & incest, and polygamy, are very different cases. Polygamy is a practice which has broad appeal, and even in many societies where it is banned de facto polygamy is not uncommon. The integration of a ban on polygamy into the legal codes of societies such as India and China is interesting, because the practice was not unknown among pre-modern elites, and persisted down to the 20th century. The film Raise the Red Lantern is about a polygamous household in 1920s China. The historical roots of the turn against polygamy seems to be tied to the rise of Western hegemony within the last few hundred years, and that itself derives from the integration of Greco-Roman norms into the Christian religion. The Romans and Greeks were obligate monogamous peoples in the Classical period, and this obligate monogamy became a feature of Christianity (though not Judaism, which retained polygamy among Ashkenazim until the 10th century, and other Jewish groups which may still retain the practice, though no longer in Israel). The barbarian warlords of Northern Europe often had to make their accommodation with this “Roman” custom upon their conversion to Christianity (though the reality is that the Church often gave monarchs de facto exemption).

If the dominance of the ideal of monogamy is a contingent accident of history, will we see a shift toward greater pluralism in the near future, with the decline of the West? This is not an implausible contention. But, I also do wonder if legally sanctioned polygamy does not trigger a destabilizing “winner take all” dynamic in complex societies, producing a lack of social trust which means that such societies have limits in terms of the scale of their complexity. In other words, perhaps advanced economies necessarily need and foster a level of gender equality which formal polygamy is simply not consonant with?

Addendum: The existence of “super-male” lineages such as that of Genghis Khan is a testament to the power and presence of polygamy as a genetic phenomenon over the last 10,000 years. Even if most men in a given society can not practice polygamy because of economic and social constraints, it may be that the majority of future generations are descended from polygamists because of their fecundity, and that of their polygamous male offspring who would inherit their status.

* No comments about how you fantasized about your sister to refute my generalization!

January 21, 2010

What era are our intuitions about elites and business adapted to?

Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don’t even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don’t have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do — these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.

So that leaves two major eras — agricultural and industrial societies. I’m going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order — hunter-gatherer life — there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders — or “natural states” that sprung up with agriculture — substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen — who all make up a dominant coalition — that I’ll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.

This way, the strongman doesn’t have to work very much to live a comfortable life — just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won’t one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone’s land gets ravaged, everyone’s peasants can’t produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).

The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people’s ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn’t going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn’t those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition — only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.

It’s not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power — maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren’t going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents — they’re going to raid him and take enough so that he’s left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won’t be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.

Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy — it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell — it’s a mercantile elite — rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations — as opposed to not having the freedom to do so — that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.

OK, now let’s take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits — that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people’s mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.

First, the view that capturing more of the audience — whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you — matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs — boosting profits — remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they’ve got them locked in, make money off of them somehow — by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.

Of course, that hasn’t gone away since then, as everyone says that “providers of online content” can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don’t think most people believe that charging a subset for “premium content” is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon’s reaction to the NYT‘s official statement that they’re going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:

Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven’t made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they’re incredibly profitable — and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as “go after audiences” — they must do that in a way that’s profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could “watch revenues follow” by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.

The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring nytimes.com into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn’t matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.

Clearly that doesn’t work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what — there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT‘s ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.

Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence — not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won’t be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It’s mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.

Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways — higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it — bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!

That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn’t want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That’s correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there’s nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.

The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late ’70s and early ’80s but couldn’t adapt to changing tastes — and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn’t adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-’90s and early 2000s — and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by — Nintendo! It doesn’t even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-’80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.

But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before — same amount of food taken — but now you’re getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master’s land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair — he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you’re entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.

You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out — the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial — but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion — the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power — is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.

By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.

But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn’t see it — the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats — that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen — we don’t want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!

This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering — hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness — if we didn’t subsidize them, they couldn’t provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don’t really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.

It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there’s a decent trace of it in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli — and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)

We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains — we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven’t had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I’m sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.

January 17, 2010

Blind men prefer thin-waisted women

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology — Razib @ 11:17 am

The waist-to-hip ratio research has been done to death, but an interesting twist, Blind men prefer a low waist-to-hip ratio:

Previous studies suggest that men in Western societies are attracted to low female waist-to-hip ratios (WHR). Several explanations of this preference rely on the importance of visual input for the development of the preference, including explanations stressing the role of visual media. We report evidence showing that congenitally blind men, without previous visual experience, exhibit a preference for low female WHRs when assessing female body shapes through touch, as do their sighted counterparts. This finding shows that a preference for low WHR can develop in the complete absence of visual input and, hence, that such input is not necessary for the preference to develop. However, the strength of the preference was greater for the sighted than the blind men, suggesting that visual input might play a role in reinforcing the preference. These results have implications for debates concerning the evolutionary and developmental origins of human mate preferences, in particular, regarding the role of visual media in shaping such preferences.

Full description of the research here.

December 9, 2009

The Mating Mouth

Filed under: Evolutionary Psychology — Razib @ 2:12 am

Gingival Transcriptome Patterns During Induction and Resolution of Experimental Gingivitis in Humans:

A relatively small subset (11.9%) of the immune response genes analyzed by array was transiently activated in response to biofilm overgrowth, suggesting a degree of specificity in the transcriptome-expression response. The fact that this same subset demonstrates a reversal in expression patterns during clinical resolution implicates these genes as being critical for maintaining tissue homeostasis at the biofilm–gingival interface. In addition to the immune response pathway as the dominant response theme, new candidate genes and pathways were identified as being selectively modulated in experimental gingivitis, including neural processes, epithelial defenses, angiogenesis, and wound healing.

ScienceDaily has a more awesome title, Nearly One Third of Human Genome Is Involved in Gingivitis, Study Shows:

Research conducted jointly by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Procter & Gamble (P&G) Oral Care has found that more than 9,000 genes — nearly 30 percent of the genes found in the human body — are expressed differently during the onset and healing process associated with gingivitis. Biological pathways associated with activation of the immune system were found to be the major pathways being activated and critical to controlling the body’s reaction to plaque build-up on the teeth. Additionally, other gene expression pathways activated during plaque overgrowth include those involved in wound healing, neural processes and skin turnover.

Perhaps then bad breath and poor oral hygiene are simply a fitness indicator, and kissing evolved as a method for humans to evaluate each other’s health as an “honest” signal?

November 13, 2009

Height doesn’t always matter….

Filed under: anthropology,Evolutionary Psychology — Razib @ 2:39 pm

How universal are human mate choices? Size doesn’t matter when Hadza foragers are choosing a mate:

It has been argued that size matters on the human mate market: both stated preferences and mate choices have been found to be non-random with respect to height and weight. But how universal are these patterns? Most of the literature on human mating patterns is based on post-industrial societies. Much less is known about mating behaviour in more traditional societies. Here we investigate mate choice by analysing whether there is any evidence for non-random mating with respect to size and strength in a forager community, the Hadza of Tanzania. We test whether couples assort for height, weight, BMI, percent fat and grip strength. We test whether there is a male-taller norm. Finally, we test for an association between anthropometric variables and number of marriages. Our results show no evidence for assortative mating for height, weight, BMI or percent fat; no evidence for a male-taller norm; and no evidence that number of marriages is associated with our size variables. Hadza couples may assort positively for grip strength, but grip strength does not affect the number of marriages. Overall we conclude that, in contrast to post-industrial societies, mating appears to be random with respect to size in the Hadza.

Here’s some stuff from the discussion:

Overall, however, our analysis suggests size and strength are not greatly important when Hadza are choosing a mate. This lack of size-related mating patterns might appear surprising, since size is usually assumed to be an indicator of health, productivity and overall quality. But health and productivity may be signalled in alternative ways in the Hadza, who are a small, relatively homogeneous population. An individual’s health history may be more important than size, for example, and this may be relatively well known in a small, mobile population. Additionally, there may be some disadvantages to large size in food-limited societies, where the costs of maintaining large size during periods of food shortage may be high. Such disadvantages will not be seen in food abundant societies, so that large size may be a better indicator of quality in postindustrial populations. Finally, research on another African forager population found that height is negatively correlated with hunting returns (Lee 1979), suggesting that tall height may not be an indicator of productivity in such economies.

Here’s a chart which shows the proportion of females-taller-than-male marriages by culture:

In a previous post I suggested that the shift from small-scale societies to agricultural societies witnessed a transition from an emphasis on innate individual level social intelligence toward rules and heuristics (in other words, wisdom embodied in the preferences of society and its institutions). External physical characteristics are correlated with “health,” so they’re useful. And those who are not physically attractive can signal their own status and abilities in other ways, ugly fat men can for example buy material signalers to show that they have something going on. It strikes me that the Wisdom of Seinfeld is most appropriate for large urban areas with some degree of anonymity. Quick & dirty signalers to filter and influence one’s choices are critical in the incredibly large number of human interactions possible in these urban agglomerations. By contrast, if George Costanza lived in a village one would know enough about his persona to dismiss a random “pairing” with an attractive woman as an aberration (or, one would know the back-story to this bizarre pairing).

As our modern post-industrial society shifts toward information transparency perhaps we’ll become less “shallow”? Remember the 1995 film Species, the attractive alien character met a handsome male at a night club. She assessed his fitness through his looks to make the initial choice. But later she killed him when she found that he was a diabetic. If she’d been able to access his health profile on her iPhone perhaps he would have been able to live for another day?

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