Category Archives: evolutionary psychology

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still increasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

Darwinian domain-generality

Subtitle: The role of evolutionary psychology in the modularity debate. MA thesis (2017) by Michael Lundie, Georgia State University. The abstract:

“Evolutionary Psychology (EP) tends to be associated with a Massively Modular (MM) cognitive architecture. I argue that EP favors a non-MM cognitive architecture. The main point of dispute is whether central cognition, such as abstract reasoning, exhibits domain-general properties. Partisans of EP argue that domain-specific modules govern central cognition, for it is unclear how the cognitive mind could have evolved domain-generality. In response, I defend a distinction between exogenous and endogenous selection pressures, according to which exogenous pressures tend to select for domain-specificity, whereas the latter, endogenous pressures, select in favor of domain-generality. I draw on models from brain network theory to motivate this distinction, and also to establish that a domain-general, non-MM cognitive architecture is the more parsimonious adaptive solution to endogenous pressures.”

General and specific-domain contributions to creativity

From this article in Europe’s Journal of Psychology (2016).

“The general objective of this study was to reexamine two views of creativity, one positing that there is a general creative capacity or talent and the other that creativity is domain-specific.  […] Multiple regressions uncovered particular relationships consistent with the view that creativity has both general and domain-specific contributions. Limitations, such as the focus on one domain, and future directions are discussed.”

Also see comments.

How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

link.medium.com/YRFzoB3Xr5

This article is relevant to our recent discussions and Zak Stein’s (see Edward’s recent post) suggestion that great destabilizing events open gaps in which new structures can supplant older, disintegrating systems–with the inherent risks and opportunities.

The Cognitive Bias Codex

Many (all?) cognitive biases are built-in features of the human attention-sensation-perception-memory-cognition chain of sense making processes. It would not be surprising to learn many of these biases have effects that are relevant to questions regarding how natural selection shaped humans for particular embodied functions in a particular environment. Much has been said and written about how the pre-modern environment evolution calibrated us to function within is in many respects quite different from our modern environment.

Living in the future’s past

I watched a good documentary last night titled, Living in the Future’s Past, a project organized, produced, and narrated by Jeff Bridges. It’s available through your Albuquerque Public Library account’s access to Hoopla Digital, Amazon Prime video, and other services. It lays out the modern dilemma of having a pre-neolithic brain in a Neolithic era and posits several questions that align closely with the theme of our current discussion . The film has commentary from diverse scientific experts, including Daniel Goldman (emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness). The upshot is a recurring suggestion our current brain functionality is capable of reframing our perspective and modulating our perceptions and behaviors around carefully constructed focal questions that get at what sort of future(s) we desire. I like this approach—so well in fact that I Had reserved some web domains months ago: WorldIChoose.org, WorldIChoose.com, ChooseMyWorld.org, and ChooseMyWorld.com. These domains are not active yet. They will relate to the novel I’m writing and to a related non-fiction project. Edward is onto an important approach in looking to semantics (framing, etc.).

Also, on a short-term level, cultural evolution (including language and semantics) appears much more potent a driver than physiological evolution. Given that, I recently purchased a book by an author who goes into great depth on cultural evolution. The book is Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, by Cecelia Heyes. I may put it forward for a future discussion.

Humans are still evolving

From this article. See it for details.

“Evolution is an ongoing process, although many don’t realize people are still evolving. It’s true that Homo sapiens look very different than Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominin that lived around 2.9 million years ago. But it is also true that we are very different compared to members of our same species, Homo sapiens, who lived 10,000 years ago — and we will very likely be different from the humans of the future.

“What we eat, how we use our bodies, and who we choose to have kids with are just some of the many factors that can cause the human body to change. Genetic mutations lead to new traits — and with the world population now above 7 billion and rising, the chances of genetic mutations that natural selection can potentially act on is only increasing. Don’t believe us? Inverse presents three examples of recent changes to the human body.”

Winter 2020 discussion prompts

  • What is humanity’s situation with respect to surviving long-term with a good quality of life? (Frame the core opportunities and obstacles.)
  • What attributes of our evolved, experientially programmed brains contribute to this situation? (What are the potential leverage points for positive change within our body-brain-mind system?)
  • What courses of research and action (including currently available systems, tools, and practices and current and possible lines of R&D) have the potential to improve our (and the planetary life system’s) near- and long-term prospects?

Following is a list of (only some!) of the resources some of us have consumed and discussed online, in emails, or face-to-face in 2019. Sample a few to jog your thoughts and provoke deeper dives. Please add your own additional references in the comments below this post. For each, give a short (one line is fine) description, if possible.

Storytelling as adaptive collective sensemaking

Bietti et al. (2018), Topics in Cognitive Science. The abstract:

“Storytelling represents a key element in the creation and propagation of culture. Three main accounts of the adaptive function of storytelling include (a) manipulating the behavior of the audience to enhance the fitness of the narrator, (b) transmitting survival‐relevant information while avoiding the costs involved in the first‐hand acquisition of that information, and (c) maintaining social bonds or group‐level cooperation. We assess the substantial evidence collected in experimental and ethnographic studies for each account. These accounts do not always appeal to the specific features of storytelling above and beyond language use in general. We propose that the specific adaptive value of storytelling lies in making sense of non‐routine, uncertain, or novel situations, thereby enabling the collaborative development of previously acquired skills and knowledge, but also promoting social cohesion by strengthening intragroup identity and clarifying intergroup relations.”

How cooperatives are driving the new economy

See this Evonomics article on the topic based on Tomasello’s research in this article. You can also see his latest research in his 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. You can find a free copy here. It supports that cooperatives are much more in line with our evolutionary heritage than the corporate structure, thus highlighting the different focuses in evolutionary theory itself.

“New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation. What can we learn about sharing as a result?

“Tomasello holds that there were two key steps that led to humans’ unique form of interdependence. The first was all about who was coming to dinner. Approximately two million years ago, a fledgling species known as Homo habilis emerged on the great plains of Africa. At the same time that these four-foot-tall, bipedal apes appeared, a period of global cooling produced vast, open environments. This climate change event ultimately forced our hominid ancestors to adapt to a new way of life or perish entirely. Since they lacked the ability to take down large game, like the ferocious carnivores of the early Pleistocene, the solution they hit upon was scavenging the carcasses of recently killed large mammals. The analysis of fossil bones from this period has revealed evidence of stone-tool cut marks overlaid on top of carnivore teeth marks. The precursors of modern humans had a habit of arriving late to the feast.

“However, this survival strategy brought an entirely new set of challenges: Individuals now had to coordinate their behaviors, work together, and learn how to share. For apes living in the dense rainforest, the search for ripe fruit and nuts was largely an individual activity. But on the plains, our ancestors needed to travel in groups to survive, and the act of scavenging from a single animal carcass forced proto-humans to learn to tolerate each other and allow each other a fair share. This resulted in a form of social selection that favored cooperation: ‘Individuals who attempted to hog all of the food at a scavenged carcass would be actively repelled by others,’ writes Tomasello, ‘and perhaps shunned in other ways as well.’ […]

“The second step in Tomasello’s theory leads directly into what kinds of businesses and economies are more in line with human evolution. Humans have, of course, uniquely large population sizes—much larger than those of other primates. It was the human penchant for cooperation that allowed groups to grow in number and eventually become tribal societies.

“Humans, more than any other primate, developed psychological adaptations that allowed them to quickly recognize members of their own group (through unique behaviors, traditions, or forms of language) and develop a shared cultural identity in the pursuit of a common goal. ‘The result,’ says Tomasello, ‘was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.'”