I have quoted from the book before, but I decided that this book deserves to be blogged in more detail. I’m close to finishing the book at this point (it’s definitely taken longer than it should have), and I’ll probably give it 5 stars on goodreads; I might also add it to my list of favourite books on the site. In this post I’ve added some quotes and ideas from the book, and a few comments. Before going any further I should note that it’s frankly impossible to cover anywhere near all the ideas covered in the book here on the blog, so if you’re even remotely interested in these kinds of things you really should pick up a copy of the book and read all of it.
“I believe that something crucial has been missing from all of the great debates of history, among philosophers, politicians, theologians, and thinkers from other and diverse backgrounds, on the issues of morality, ethics, justice, right and wrong. […] those who have tried to analyze morality have failed to treat the human traits that underlie moral behavior as outcomes of evolution […] for many conflicts of interest, compromises and enforceable contracts represent the only real solutions. Appeals to morality, I will argue, are simply the invoking of such compromises and contracts in particular ways. […] the process of natural selection that has given rise to all forms of life, including humans, operates such that success has always been relative. One consequence is that organisms resulting from the long-term cumulative effects of selection are expected to resist efforts to reveal their interests fully to others, and also efforts to place limits on their striving or to decide for them when their interests are being “fully” satisfied. These are all reasons why we should expect no “terminus” – ever – to debates on moral and ethical issues.” (these comments I also included in the quotes post to which I link at the beginning, but I thought it was worth including them in this post as well even so – US).
“I am convinced that biology can never offer […] easy or direct answers to the questions of what is right and wrong. I explicitly reject the attitude that whatever biology tells us is so is also what ought to be (David Hume’s so-called “naturalistic fallacy”) […] there are within biology no magic solutions to moral problems. […] Knowledge of the human background in organic evolution can [however] provide a deeper self-understanding by an increasing proportion of the world’s population; self-understanding that I believe can contribute to answering the serious questions of social living.”
“If there had been no recent discoveries in biology that provided new ways of looking at the concept of moral systems, then I would be optimistic indeed to believe that I could say much that is new. But there have been such discoveries. […] The central point in these writings [Hamilton, Williams, Trivers, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, Dawkins, Wilson, etc. – US] […] is that natural selection has apparently been maximizing the survival by reproduction of genes, as they have been defined by evolutionists, and that, with respect to the activities of individuals, this includes effects on copies of their genes, even copies located in other individuals. In other words, we are evidently evolved not only to aid the genetic materials in our own bodies, by creating and assisting descendants, but also to assist, by nepotism, copies of our genes that reside in collateral (nondescendant) relatives. […] ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interests […] In some respects these ideas run contrary to what people have believed and been taught about morality and human values: I suspect that nearly all humans believe it is a normal part of the functioning of every human individual now and then to assist someone else in the realization of that person’s own interests to the actual net expense of those of the altruist. What [the above-mentioned writings] tells us is that, despite our intuitions, there is not a shred of evidence to support this view of beneficence, and a great deal of convincing theory suggests that any such view will eventually be judged false. This implies that we will have to start all over again to describe and understand ourselves, in terms alien to our intuitions […] It is […] a goal of this book to contribute to this redescription and new understanding, and especially to discuss why our intuitions should have misinformed us.”
“Social behavior evolves as a succession of ploys and counterploys, and for humans these ploys are used, not only among individuals within social groups, but between and among small and large groups of up to hundreds of millions of individuals. The value of an evolutionary approach to human sociality is thus not to determine the limits of our actions so that we can abide by them. Rather, it is to examine our life strategies so that we can change them when we wish, as a result of understanding them. […] my use of the word biology in no way implies that moral systems have some kind of explicit genetic background, are genetically determined, or cannot be altered by adjusting the social environment. […] I mean simply to suggest that if we wish to understand those aspects of our behavior commonly regarded as involving morality or ethics, it will help to reconsider our behavior as a product of evolution by natural selection. The principal reason for this suggestion is that natural selection operates according to general principles which make its effects highly predictive, even with respect to traits and circumstances that have not yet been analyzed […] I am interested […] not in determining what is moral and immoral, in the sense of what people ought to be doing, but in elucidating the natural history of ethics and morality – in discovering how and why humans initiated and developed the ideas we have about right and wrong.”
I should perhaps mention here that sort-of-kind-of related stuff is covered in Aureli et al. (see e.g. this link), and that some parts of that book will probably make you understand Alexander’s ideas a lot better even if perhaps he didn’t read those specific authors – mainly because it gets a lot easier to imagine the sort of mechanisms which might be at play here if you’ve read this sort of literature. Here’s one relevant quote from the coverage of that book, which also deals with the question Alexander discusses above, and in a lot more detail throughout his book, namely ‘where our morality comes from?’
“we make two fundamental assertions regarding the evolution of morality: (1) there are specific types of behavior demonstrated by both human and nonhuman primates that hint at a shared evolutionary background to morality; and (2) there are theoretical and actual connections between morality and conflict resolution in both nonhuman primates and human development. […] the transition from nonmoral or premoral to moral is more gradual than commonly assumed. No magic point appears in either evolutionary history or human development at which morality suddenly comes into existence. In both early childhood and in animals closely related to us, we can recognize behaviors (and, in the case of children, judgments) that are essential building blocks of the morality of the human adult. […] the decision making and emotions underlying moral judgments are generated within the individual rather than being simply imposed by society. They are a product of evolution, an integrated part of the human genetic makeup, that makes the child construct a moral perspective through interactions with other members of its species. […] Much research has shown that children acquire morality through a social-cognitive process; children make connections between acts and consequences. Through a gradual process, children develop concepts of justice, fairness, and equality, and they apply these concepts to concrete everyday situations […] we assert that emotions such as empathy and sympathy provide an experiential basis by which children construct moral judgments. Emotional reactions from others, such as distress or crying, provide experiential information that children use to judge whether an act is right or wrong […] when a child hits another child, a crying response provides emotional information about the nature of the act, and this information enables the child, in part, to determine whether and why the transgression is wrong. Therefore, recognizing signs of distress in another person may be a basic requirement of the moral judgment process. The fact that responses to distress in another have been documented both in infancy and in the nonhuman primate literature provides initial support for the idea that these types of moral-like experiences are common to children and nonhuman primates.”
Alexander’s coverage is quite different from that found in Aureli et al.,, but some of the contributors to the latter work deal with similar questions to the ones in which he’s interested, using approaches not employed in Alexander’s book – so this is another place to look if you’re interested in these topics. Margalit’s The Emergence of Norms is also worth mentioning. Part of the reason why I mention these books here is incidentally that they’re not talked about in Alexander’s coverage (for very natural reasons, I should add, in the case of the former book at least; Natural Conflict Resolution was published more than a decade after Alexander wrote his book…).
“In the hierarchy of explanatory principles governing the traits of living organisms, evolutionary reductionism – the development of principles from the evolutionary process – tends to subsume all other kinds. Proximate-cause reductionism (or reduction by dissection) sometimes advances our understanding of the whole phenomena. […] When evolutionary reduction becomes trivial in the study of life it is for a reason different from incompleteness; rather, it is because the breadth of the generalization distances it too significantly from the particular problem that may be at hand. […] the greatest weakness of reduction by generalization is not that it is likely to be trivial but that errors are probable through unjustified leaps from hypothesis to conclusion […] Critics such as Gould and Lewontin […] do not discuss the facts that (a) all students of human behavior (not just those who take evolution into account) run the risk of leaping unwarrantedly from hypothesis to conclusion and (b) just-so stories were no less prevalent and hypothesis-testing no more prevalent in studies of human behavior before evolutionary biologists began to participate. […] I believe that failure by biologists and others to distinguish proximate- or partial-cause and evolutionary- or ultimate-cause reductionism […] is in some part responsible for the current chasm between the social and the biological sciences and the resistance to so-called biological approaches to understanding humans. […] Both approaches are essential to progress in biology and the social sciences, and it would be helpful if their relationship, and that of their respective practitioners, were not seen as adversarial.”
“Humans are not accustomed to dealing with their own strategies of life as if they had been tuned by natural selection. […] People are not generally aware of what their lifetimes have been evolved to accomplish, and, even if they are roughly aware of this, they do not easily accept that their everyday activities are in any sense means to that end. […] The theory of lifetimes most widely accepted among biologists is that individuals have evolved to maximize the likelihood of survival of not themselves, but their genes, and that they do this by reproducing and tending in various ways offspring and other carriers of their own genes […] In this theory, survival of the individual – and its growth, development, and learning – are proximate mechanisms of reproductive success, which is a proximate mechanism of genic survival. Only the genes have evolved to survive. […] To say that we are evolved to serve the interests of our genes in no way suggests that we are obliged to serve them. […] Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it. If this argument is correct, it may be the first to carry us from is to ought, i.e., if we desire to be the conscious masters of our own fates, and if conscious effort in that direction is the most likely vehicle of survival and happiness, then we ought to study evolution.”
“People are sometimes comfortable with the notion that certain activities can be labeled as “purely cultural” because they also believe that there are behaviors that can be labeled “purely genetic.” Neither is true: the environment contributes to the expression of all behaviors, and culture is best described as part of the environment.”
“Happiness and its anticipation are […] proximate mechanisms that lead us to perform and repeat acts that in the environments of history, at least, would have led to greater reproductive success.”
“The remarkable difference between the patterns of senescence in semelparous (one-time breeding) and iteroparous (repeat-breeding) organisms is probably one of the best simple demonstrations of the central significance of reproduction in the individual’s lifetime. How, otherwise, could we explain the fact that those who reproduce but once, like salmon and soybeans, tend to die suddenly right afterward, while those like ourselves who have residual reproductive possibilities after the initial reproductive act decline or senesce gradually? […] once an organism has completed all possibilities of reproducing (through both offspring production and assistance, and helping other relatives), then selection can no longer affect its survival: any physiological or other breakdown that destroys it may persist and even spread if it is genetically linked to a trait that is expressed earlier and is reproductively beneficial. […] selection continually works against senescence, but is just never able to defeat it entirely. […] senescence leads to a generalized deterioration rather than one owing to a single effect or a few effects […] In the course of working against senescence, selection will tend to remove, one by one, the most frequent sources of mortality as a result of senescence. Whenever a single cause of mortality, such as a particular malfunction of any vital organ, becomes the predominant cause of mortality, then selection will more effectively reduce the significance of that particular defect (meaning those who lack it will outreproduce) until some other achieves greater relative significance. […] the result will be that all organs and systems will tend to deteriorate together. […] The point is that as we age, and as senescence proceeds, large numbers of potential sources of mortality tend to lurk ever more malevolently just “below the surface,” so that, unfortunately, the odds are very high against any dramatic lengthening of the maximum human lifetime through technology. […] natural selection maximizes the likelihood of genetic survival, which is incompatible with eliminating senescence. […] Senescence, and the finiteness of lifetimes, have evolved as incidental effects […] Organisms compete for genetic survival and the winners (in evolutionary terms) are those who sacrifice their phenotypes (selves) earlier when this results in greater reproduction.”
“altruism appears to diminish with decreasing degree of relatedness in sexual species whenever it is studied – in humans as well as nonhuman species”
“In the pages that follow we advance two propositions.
First, people cooperate not only for self-interested reasons but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, try to uphold social norms, and value behaving ethically for its own sake. People punish those who exploit the cooperative behavior of others for the same reasons. Contributing to the success of a joint project for the benefit of one’s group, even at a personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, even elation. Failing to do so is often a source of shame or guilt.
Second, we came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments, both natural and socially constructed, in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and expand relative to other groups, thereby allowing these prosocial motivations to proliferate. The first proposition concerns proximate motivations for prosocial behavior, the second addresses the distant evolutionary origins and ongoing perpetuation of these cooperative dispositions.”
Here’s my goodreads review of the book – I gave the book five stars on goodreads. In the post I have included some illustrative quotes below, but really you should read all of it if you find this sort of stuff interesting and you’re not mathematically illiterate (and as the authors note early on, they have given the way they present their ideas some thought: “We have presented technical material in verbal as well as mathematical form wherever possible, and avoided mathematical formulations entirely where that was possible without sacrificing clarity.” Even so, the book is somewhat dense and it takes some work to get through).
“In short, humans became the cooperative species that we are because cooperation was highly beneficial to the members of groups that practiced it, and we were able to construct social institutions that minimized the disadvantages of those with social preferences in competition with fellow group members, while heightening the group-level advantages associated with the high levels of cooperation that these social preferences allowed. These institutions proliferated because the groups that adopted them secured high levels of within-group cooperation, which in turn favored the groups’ survival as a biological and cultural entity in the face of environmental, military and other challenges.”
“The regulation of social interactions by group-level institutions plays no less a role than altruistic individual motives in understanding how this cooperative species came to be. Institutions affect the rewards and penalties associated with particular behaviors, often favoring the adoption of cooperative actions over others, so that even the self-regarding are often induced to act in the interest of the group. […] the individual motives and group-level institutions that account for cooperation among humans include not only the most elevated, including a concern for others, fair-mindedness, and democratic accountability of leaders, but also the most wicked, such as vengeance, racism, religious bigotry, and hostility toward outsiders.”
“Optimizing models are commonly used to describe behavior not because they mimic the cognitive processes of the actors, which they rarely do, but because they capture important influences on individual behavior in a succinct and analytically tractable way.”
“Culture is an evolutionary force in its own right, not simply an effect of the interaction of genes and natural environments. […] human preferences and beliefs are the product of a dynamic whereby genes affect cultural evolution and culture affects genetic evolution, the two being tightly intertwined in the evolution of our species. [I have of course talked about gene-culture coevolution before here on the blog and I don’t like to repeat myself, but this idea/notion really is unknown to many people who should know better, and so is perhaps worth repeating here even so – US] […] The idea of treating culture as a form of epigenetic transmission was pioneered by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1973), Karl Popper (1979), and Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme” […] to represent an integral unit of information that could be transmitted phenotypically. There quickly followed several major contributions to a biological approach to culture, all based on the notion that culture, like genes, could evolve through replication (intergenerational transmission), mutation, and selection […] Richard Dawkins added a second fundamental mechanism of epigenetic information transmission in The Extended Phenotype (1982), noting that organisms can directly transmit environmental artifacts to the next generation […] Creating a fitness-relevant aspect of an environment and stably transmitting this environment across generations, known as niche construction, is a widespread form of epigenetic transmission […] niche construction gives rise to what might be called a gene-environment coevolutionary process, since a genetically induced environmental regularity becomes the basis for genetic selection, and genetic mutations that give rise to mutant niches will tend to survive if they are fitness enhancing for their constructors. […] Human cultures, along with the institutional structures they support, are instances of niche construction”.
“while genetic transmission of information plays a central role in our account, the genetics of non-pathological social behavior is for the most part unknown. […] No “gene for cooperation” has been discovered. Nor is it likely that one will ever be found, for the idea of a one-to-one mapping between genes and behavior is unlikely given what is now known about gene expression, and is implausible in light of the complexity and cultural variation of cooperative behaviors. […] an explanation of the evolution of human cooperation must hinge on the empirical evidence. The question is not “Which model works?” They all work, if mathematical coherence is the bar. The question we are asking is about something that actually happened in the human past. Thus we measure the empirical plausibility of alternative explanations against the conditions under which early humans lived during the Pleistocene, roughly 1.6 million years before the present, until the advent of agriculture beginning about 12,000 years ago, and especially the last 100 or so millennia of this period.”
“in small-scale societies punishment can be highly effective even when it takes the form of ridicule or gossip and it inflicts no material costs on its targets. […] People are sensitive to others’ evaluation of their moral worth or intentions and will cooperate in social dilemmas when the punishment for free-riding takes the form of criticism by peers rather than a reduction in material payoffs. […] People punish not only those who have hurt them, but also those who hurt others. […] even self-regarding individuals may engage in third-party punishment if they believe that this will induce other-regarding individuals to behave favorably toward them. […] recent experimental results are consistent with the view that the social preferences that become salient in a population depend critically on the manner in which a people’s institutions and livelihood frame social interactions and shape the process of social learning. An expected result, confirmed by a growing body of international comparative evidence, is substantial cross-cultural differences in the nature and extent of social preferences.”
“In experimental and natural settings, people often behave differently toward others, depending on the organizational, linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups to which they belong. People choose to associate with others who are similar to themselves in some salient respect […] Among the salient characteristics on which this choice operates are racial and ethnic identification, and religion […] Conversely, people often seek to avoid interactions with those who are different from themselves. […] Those who condition their behavior on the group membership of the other may do this because group membership is thought to provide information about the other’s likely behavior. Or group membership may matter because people would like to help or to interact with members of some groups more than others. In the first case the actor’s beliefs are involved. In the second case, group-sensitive preferences are at work. […] a series of experiments by Toshio Yamagishi and his associates […] show that experimental subjects’ allocations favor in-group members not because of altruistic sentiments toward those who are similar to themselves, but because they expected reciprocation from in-groupers and not from out-groupers. […] taking account of ethnic, racial and other characteristics of those with whom one interacts appears to be a quite common human trait. We seem quite attuned to noticing and treating as salient the ascriptive markers of group difference. For example, Americans of European and African origin are better at recognizing faces of their own ancestral group, and faces of their own group induce greater activation in the part of the brain associated with face recognition.” (my bold)
“The most parsimonious and compelling proximate explanation of behavior in the ultimatum game, public goods game, and other social dilemma experiments is that people think that cooperating is the right thing to do and enjoy doing it, and that they dislike unfair treatment and enjoy punishing those who violate norms of fairness. […] Recent studies of brain functioning provide some support for this hedonic view of cooperative behavior.“
“Differential group success […] plays a central role in the evolution of human behaviors and institutions, members of less successful groups copying the more successful or being eliminated by them. […] the speed of an evolutionary process is proportional to the differences on which it works […] reduction in within-group differences slows down the selection against altruistic individuals. Insider biases and individual preferences to interact with like individuals lead to large between-group differences in behavior and, to a lesser but not negligible extent, in genotypes too […] insider biases result in frequent between-group conflicts as well as high levels of positive assortment in interactions both within and between groups. […] All of these aspects of human social life enhance the force of between-group selection relative to within-group selection.” (my bold)
“The fact that helping behaviors are […] motivated by [a] wide range of proximate motives, from maternal love, to enlightened self-interest, to solidarity with one’s coethnics or conationals, is consistent with our view that in all likelihood each of the mechanisms […] has played a significant role in human evolution, the importance of each depending on the forms of cooperation under consideration and the ecological and social conditions under which ancestral humans interacted. […] what can be known or reasonably conjectured from genetic, archaeological and other data about [the] ancestral human conditions suggests that neither helping close family members nor reciprocal altruism provides an adequate account of the emergence of [our] cooperative species. […] multi-level selection models based on gene culture coevolution [however] contribute substantially to a convincing explanation.”
As mentioned, if you find this kind of stuff interesting you should strongly consider reading the book.
I recently read Nick Middleton’s short publication on this topic and decided it was worth blogging it here. I gave the publication 3 stars on goodreads; you can read my goodreads review of the book here.
In this post I’ll quote a bit from the book and add some details I thought were interesting.
“None of [the] approaches to desert definition is foolproof. All have their advantages and drawbacks. However, each approach delivers […] global map[s] of deserts and semi-deserts that [are] broadly similar […] Roughly, deserts cover about one-quarter of our planet’s land area, and semi-deserts another quarter.”
“High temperatures and a paucity of rainfall are two aspects of climate that many people routinely associate with deserts […] However, desert climates also embrace other extremes. Many arid zones experience freezing temperatures and snowfall is commonplace, particularly in those situated outside the tropics. […] For much of the time, desert skies are cloud-free, meaning deserts receive larger amounts of sunshine than any other natural environment. […] Most of the water vapour in the world’s atmosphere is supplied by evaporation from the oceans, so the more remote a location is from this source the more likely it is that any moisture in the air will have been lost by precipitation before it reaches continental interiors. The deserts of Central Asia illustrate this principle well: most of the moisture in the air is lost before it reaches the heart of the continent […] A clear distinction can be made between deserts in continental interiors and those on their coastal margins when it comes to the range of temperatures experienced. Oceans tend to exert a moderating influence on temperature, reducing extremes, so the greatest ranges of temperature are found far from the sea while coastal deserts experience a much more limited range. […] Freezing temperatures occur particularly in the mid-latitude deserts, but by no means exclusively so. […] snowfall occurs at the Algerian oasis towns of Ouagla and Ghardaia, in the northern Sahara, as often as once every 10 years on average.”
“[One] characteristic of rainfall in deserts is its variability from year to year which in many respects makes annual average statistics seem like nonsense. A very arid desert area may go for several years with no rain at all […]. It may then receive a whole ‘average’ year’s rainfall in just one storm […] Rainfall in deserts is also typically very variable in space as well as time. Hence, desert rainfall is frequently described as being ‘spotty’. This spottiness occurs because desert storms are often convective, raining in a relatively small area, perhaps just a few kilometres across. […] Climates can vary over a wide range of spatial scales […] Changes in temperature, wind, relative humidity, and other elements of climate can be detected over short distances, and this variability on a small scale creates distinctive climates in small areas. These are microclimates, different in some way from the conditions prevailing over the surrounding area as a whole. At the smallest scale, the shade given by an individual plant can be described as a microclimate. Over larger distances, the surface temperature of the sand in a dune will frequently be significantly different from a nearby dry salt lake because of the different properties of the two types of surface. […] Microclimates are important because they exert a critical control over all sorts of phenomena. These include areas suitable for plant and animal communities to develop, the ways in which rocks are broken down, and the speed at which these processes occur.”
“The level of temperature prevailing when precipitation occurs is important for an area’s water balance and its degree of aridity. A rainy season that occurs during the warm summer months, when evaporation is greatest, makes for a climate that is more arid than if precipitation is distributed more evenly throughout the year.”
“The extremely arid conditions of today[‘s Sahara Desert] have prevailed for only a few thousand years. There is lots of evidence to suggest that the Sahara was lush, nearly completely covered with grasses and shrubs, with many lakes that supported antelope, giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, and human populations in regions that today have almost no measurable precipitation. This ‘African Humid Period’ began around 15,000 years ago and came to an end around 10,000 years later. […] Globally, at the height of the most recent glacial period some 18,000 years ago, almost 50% of the land area between 30°N and 30°S was covered by two vast belts of sand, often called ‘sand seas’. Today, about 10% of this area is covered by sand seas. […] Around one-third of the Arabian subcontinent is covered by sandy deserts”.
“Much of the drainage in deserts is internal, as in Central Asia. Their rivers never reach the sea, but take water to interior basins. […] Salt is a common constituent of desert soils. The generally low levels of rainfall means that salts are seldom washed away through soils and therefore tend to accumulate in certain parts of the landscape. Large amounts of common salt (sodium chloride, or halite), which is very soluble in water, are found in some hyper-arid deserts.”
“Many deserts are very rich in rare and unique species thanks to their evolution in relative geographical isolation. Many of these plants and animals have adapted in remarkable ways to deal with the aridity and extremes of temperature. Indeed, some of these adaptations contribute to the apparent lifelessness of deserts simply because a good way to avoid some of the harsh conditions is to hide. Some small creatures spend hot days burrowed beneath the soil surface. In a similar way, certain desert plants spend most of the year and much of their lives dormant, as seeds waiting for the right conditions, brought on by a burst of rainfall. Given that desert rainstorms can be very variable in time and in space, many activities in the desert ecosystem occur only sporadically, as pulses of activity driven by the occasional cloudburst. […] The general scarcity of water is the most important, though by no means the only, environmental challenge faced by desert organisms. Limited supplies of food and nutrients, friable soils, high levels of solar radiation, high daytime temperatures, and the large diurnal temperature range are other challenges posed by desert conditions. These conditions are not always distributed evenly across a desert landscape, and the existence of more benign microenvironments is particularly important for desert plants and animals. Patches of terrain that are more biologically productive than their surroundings occur in even the most arid desert, geographical patterns caused by many factors, not only the simple availability of water.”
A small side note here: The book includes brief coverage of things like crassulacean acid metabolism and related topics covered in much more detail in Beer et al. I’m not going to go into that stuff here as this stuff was in my opinion much better covered in the latter book (some people might disagree, but people who would do that would at least have to admit that the coverage in Beer et al. is/was much more comprehensive than is Middleton’s coverage in this book). There are quite a few other topics included in the book which I did not include coverage of here in the post but I mention this topic in particular in part because I thought it was actually a good example underscoring how this book is very much just a very brief introduction; you can write book chapters, if not books, about some of the topics Middleton devotes a couple of paragraphs to in his coverage, which is but to be expected given the nature and range of coverage of the publication.
Plants aren’t ‘smart’ given any conventional definition of the word, but as I’ve talked about before here on the blog (e.g. here) when you look closer at the way they grow and ‘behave’ over the very long term, some of the things they do are actually at the very least ‘not really all that stupid’:
“The seeds of annuals germinate only when enough water is available to support the entire life cycle. Germinating after just a brief shower could be fatal, so mechanisms have developed for seeds to respond solely when sufficient water is available. Seeds germinate only when their protective seed coats have been broken down, allowing water to enter the seed and growth to begin. The seed coats of many desert species contain chemicals that repel water. These compounds are washed away by large amounts of water, but a short shower will not generate enough to remove all the water-repelling chemicals. Other species have very thick seed coats that are gradually worn away physically by abrasion as moving water knocks the seeds against stones and pebbles.”
What about animals? One thing I learned from this publication is that it turns out that being a mammal will, all else equal, definitely not give you a competitive edge in a hot desert environment:
“The need to conserve water is important to all creatures that live in hot deserts, but for mammals it is particularly crucial. In all environments mammals typically maintain a core body temperature of around 37–38°C, and those inhabiting most non-desert regions face the challenge of keeping their body temperature above the temperature of their environmental surrounds. In hot deserts, where environmental temperatures substantially exceed the body temperature on a regular basis, mammals face the reverse challenge. The only mechanism that will move heat out of an animal’s body against a temperature gradient is the evaporation of water, so maintenance of the core body temperature requires use of the resource that is by definition scarce in drylands.”
Humans? What about them?
“Certain aspects of a traditional mobile lifestyle have changed significantly for some groups of nomadic peoples. Herders in the Gobi desert in Mongolia pursue a way of life that in many ways has changed little since the times of the greatest of all nomadic leaders, Chinggis Khan, 750 years ago. They herd the same animals, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and still live in round felt-covered tents, traditional dwellings known in Mongolian as gers. Yet many gers now have a set of solar panels on the roof that powers a car battery, allowing an electric light to extend the day inside the tent. Some also have a television set.” (these remarks incidentally somehow reminded me of this brilliant Gary Larson cartoon)
“People have constructed dams to manage water resources in arid regions for thousands of years. One of the oldest was the Marib dam in Yemen, built about 3,000 years ago. Although this structure was designed to control water from flash floods, rather than for storage, the diverted flow was used to irrigate cropland. […] Although groundwater has been exploited for desert farmland using hand-dug underground channels for a very long time, the discovery of reserves of groundwater much deeper below some deserts has led to agricultural use on much larger scales in recent times. These deep groundwater reserves tend to be non-renewable, having built up during previous climatic periods of greater rainfall. Use of this fossil water has in many areas resulted in its rapid depletion.”
“Significant human impacts are thought to have a very long history in some deserts. One possible explanation for the paucity of rainfall in the interior of Australia is that early humans severely modified the landscape through their use of fire. Aboriginal people have used fire extensively in Central Australia for more than 20,000 years, particularly as an aid to hunting, but also for many other purposes, from clearing passages to producing smoke signals and promoting the growth of preferred plants. The theory suggests that regular burning converted the semi-arid zone’s mosaic of trees, shrubs, and grassland into the desert scrub seen today. This gradual change in the vegetation could have resulted in less moisture from plants reaching the atmosphere and hence the long-term desertification of the continent.” (I had never heard about this theory before, and so I of course have no idea if it’s correct or not – but it’s an interesting idea).
“Put very crudely, the main thesis of this book is that certain types of norms are possible solutions to problems posed by certain types of social interaction situations. […] Three types of paradigmatic situations are dealt with. They are referred to as (1) Prisoner’s Dilemma-type situations; (2) Co-ordination situations; (3) Inequality (or Partiality) situations. Each of them, it is claimed, poses a basic difficulty, to some or all of the individuals involved in them. Three types of norms, respectively, are offered as solutions to these situational problems. It is shown how, and in what sense, the adoption of these norms of social behaviour can indeed resolve the specified problem.”
I should probably before moving on apologize for the infrequent updates – you should expect blogging to be light also in the months to come. With that out of the way, the book to which the title of this post refers and from which the above quote is taken is this Oxford University Press publication. Here’s what I wrote about the book on goodreads:
“The last chapter wasn’t in my opinion nearly as good as the others, presumably in part because I was unfamiliar with a lot of the literature to which she referred, but also because I could not really agree with all the distinctions and arguments made, and I was close to giving the book 3 stars as a result of this [I gave the book 4 stars on goodreads]. I think she overplays the ‘impersonal’ nature of norms in that chapter; if a norm based on sanctions is not enforced then it is irrelevant, and to the extent that it is enforced *someone* needs to impose the sanction on the transgressor. The fact that it’s actually in some contexts considered ‘a problem that needs explaining’ to figure out exactly how to support a model with sanctioning in a context where enforcement is costly to the individual (it’s a problem because of the free-riding issue – it’s always easier to let someone else do the sanctioning…) seems to have eluded Margalit (for details on this topic, see e.g. Boyd and Richerson).
It’s probably helpful to be familiar with basic game theoretic concepts if you’re planning on reading this book (it has a lot of game theory, though most of it is quite simple stuff), as well as perhaps having some familiarity with basic economics (rationality assumptions, utility functions, etc.) but I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think the author does cover most of the basic things you need to know to be able to follow the arguments. The first three chapters are quite good.”
I should point out here that when I was writing the review above I had been completely unaware of how long ago the book was written; the book is pretty self-contained and I hadn’t really noticed when I picked up the book that it’s actually a rather old book. If I had been aware of this I would not have been nearly as vocal in my criticism of the content of the last chapter in my review as was the case, given that some of the insights I blame the author for being unaware of were only discussed in the literature after the publication of this book; the unaddressed problems do remain unaddressed and they are problematic, but it’s probably unfair to blame the author for not thinking about stuff which probably nobody really had given any thought at the time of publication.
In the post below I’ll talk a little bit about the book and add some more quotes. It probably makes sense to start out by giving a brief outline of the problems encountered in the three settings mentioned above. The basic problem encountered in prisoner’s dilemma-type situations is that unilateral defection is an attractive proposition, but if everybody yields to this temptation and defect then that will lead to a bad outcome. The problem faced is thus to figure out some way to make sure that defection is not an attractive option. In the co-ordination setting, there are several mutually beneficial states, none of which are strictly preferred to the others; that is, there is a coincidence of interests among the parties involved. The problem is that it’s difficult to come to an an explicit agreement as to which of the states to aim for. An example could be whether to drive in the right side of the road or the left side of the road. It probably doesn’t really matter much which side of the road you’re driving on, as long as you’re driving in the same side of the road as the other drivers do. The coincidence of interests here need not be perfect; one person might slightly prefer to drive in the right side of the road, all else equal, but even so it’ll be in his or her interest to drive in the same side of the road as do the other drivers; there’s no incentive for unilateral defection, and the main problem is figuring out how to achieve the outcome where behaviour is coordinated so that one of the available equilibria is reached. In the third setting, there’s some inequality present and one party is at an advantage; the problem here is how to maintain this advantageous position and how to fortify it so that it’s stable.
Some quotes and a few more comments:
“[One] angle from which it may be illuminating to view the account of norms offered here is that of evolutionary explanations. […] I propose to regard the argument underlying this book as, in a borrowed and somewhat metaphorical sense, a natural selection theory of the development of norms.”
“Norms do not as a rule come into existence at a definite point in time, nor are they the result of a manageable number of identifiable acts. The are, rather, the resultant of complex patterns of behaviour of a large number of people over a protracted period of time.”
“it is proposed that the main elements in the characterization of norms of obligation be: a significant social pressure for conformity to them and against deviation – actual or potential – from them; the belief by the people concerned in their indispensability for the proper functioning of society; and the expected clashes between their dictates on the one hand and personal interests and desires on the other.”
It should be noted here that far from all norms qualify as norms of obligation; this is but one norm subgroup, though it’s an important one. The author notes explicitly that norms encountered in the context of coordination problems are not norms of obligation.
“A situation of the generalized PD variety poses a problem to the participants involved. The problem is that of protecting an unstable yet jointly beneficial state of affairs from deteriorating, so to speak, into a stable yet jointly destructive one. My contention concerning such a situation is that a norm, backed by appropriate sanctions, could solve this problem. In this sense it can be said that such situations ‘call for’ norms. It can further be said that a norm solving the problem inherent in a situation of this type is generated by it. Such norms I shall call PD norms. […] the smaller and the more determinate the class of participants in a generalized PD-structured situation, and the more isolated the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that there might be solutions other than (PD) norms to the pertinent problem […] And conversely, the larger and the more indeterminate the class of participants, and the more frequent the occurrence of the dilemma among them, the more likely it is that a solution, if any, would be in the form of a PD norm. […] the more difficult (or costly) it is to ensure […] personal contact, […] the more acute the need for some impersonal device, such as social norms, which would induce the desired co-operation.”
You can easily add more details to the conceptual framework underlying the analysis in order to refine it in various ways, and the author does talk a little bit about how you might go about doing that; for example it might not be realistic that nobody ever deviates, and so you might decide to replace an unrealistic stability condition that nobody deviates with another one which might be that at most some percentage, say X, of the population deviates. Such refined theoretical models can incidentally yield very interesting and non-trivial theoretical results – Boyd and Richerson cover such models in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. It should perhaps be noted that even relatively simple models dealing with these sorts of topics may easily end up nevertheless being sufficiently complicated for analytical solutions to not be forthcoming.
“there are norms whose function is to maintain social control on certain groups of people through preventing them from solving the problem inherent in the PD-structured situation in which they are placed. That is, these norms are designed to help keep these people in a state of affairs which, while disadvantageous to them […] is considered beneficial to society as a whole. A conspicuous example of norms of this type are anti-trust laws.”
In the context of coordination problems, the author distinguishes between two solution mechanisms/norms; conventions and decrees. Broadly speaking conventions can be thought of as established solutions to coordination problems encountered in the past, whereas decrees are solutions to novel problems where no equilibrium has yet been established – see also the more detailed quotes below. In the context of sanctions an important difference between coordination norms and PD norms is that sanctions can be said to play a primary role in the context of PD norms but only a secondary role in the context of coordination norms; nobody has a unilateral incentive to deviate in the context of coordination-type situations/problems and so defection so to speak carries its own punishment independent of the potential level of an associated sanction. If everybody else drive in the right side of the road, you don’t gain anything from driving in the left side of the road – and it’s unlikely to be the size of the fine which is the primary reason why you don’t drive in the left side of the road in such a context.
“It is worth noting that within the large class of problems of strategy (i.e. problems of interdependent decision), the problems of co-ordination stand in opposition to problems of conflict, the contrast being particularly acute between the extreme cases of pure co-ordination on the one hand and of pure conflict (the so-called zero-sum problems) on the other. Whereas in the pure co-ordination case the parties’ interests converge completely, and the agents win or lose together, in the pure conflict case the parties’ interests diverge completely, and one person’s gain is the other’s loss. […] [Shelling argues] that games of strategy range over a continuum with games of pure conflict […] and games of pure co-ordination as opposite limits. All other games […] involve mixtures in varying proportions of conflict and co-ordination, of competition and partnership, and are referred to as mixed-motive games.”
One thing to add here, which is of course not mentioned in the book, is that whereas the situation does play a sometimes major role in terms of which setting you find yourself in, there’s also a relevant mental/psychological aspect to consider here; in the context of bargaining, it’s a very well-established result that bargainers who conceive of the bargaining situation as a zero-sum (‘conflict’) game do worse than bargainers who do not.
“Very generally, where communities which have their own ways of going about things – their own arrangements, regularities, conventions – come into contact, and where the situation demands that barriers between them be dropped, or that one – any one – of them absorb the other, various co-ordination problems are likely to crop up and to call for […] decree-type co-ordination norms to solve them.”
“Conventions are, typically:
(1) Non-statutory norms, which need not be enacted, formulated, or promulgated.
(2) They are neither issued nor promulgated by any identifiable authority, and are hence what is usually called impersonal, or anonymous norms.
(3) They involve in the main non-institutionalized, non-organized, and informal sanctions (i.e. punishments or rewards).
Decrees, in contrast, are, typically:
(2) Issued and promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority (not necessarily at the level of the state);
(3) The sanctions they involve might be organized, institutionalized, and formal, even physical.”
Conventions and decrees are quite different, but in terms of what they do they solve similar problems:
“Since a co-ordination problem is a situation such that any of its co-ordination equilibria is preferred, by all involved, to any combination of actions which is not a co-ordination equlibrium, each of those involved is interested in there being something which will point – in a way conspicuous to all and perceived to be conspicuous to all – to one particular co-ordination equilibrum as the solution. This precisely is what our co-ordination norms, whether conventions or decrees, do.”
“Thibaut and Kelley note that norms ‘will develop more rapidly and more surely in highly cohesive groups than in less cohesive groups’ – assuming that the majority of the members have about the same degree of dependence on the group […] To the extent that norms reduce interference, cut communication costs, heighten value similarity and insure the interaction sequence necessary for task performance, norms improve the reward-cost positions attained by the members of a dyad and thus increase the cohesiveness of the dyad”
“[I]n so far as conformity to a co-ordination norm ensures the achievement of some co-ordination equilibrium, which for everyone involved in the corresponding co-ordination problem belongs of necessity to the group of preferred outcomes, it is rational for everyone to conform to it. Are we to conclude from this, however, that the social choice to which the co-ordination norm is instrumental is itself rational? My answer to this question is that although it is rational to conform to a prevailing co-ordination norm, the social choice resulting from it is not necessarily rational. […] it may not be optimal, for some or for all involved. It can in principle be changed into a better one, only this involves an explicit process which is not always feasible. […] The changing of an existing convention in favour of a ‘better’, more rational one, has to be explicit. It can be achieved through an explicit agreement of all concerned, or through a regulation (decree) issued and properly promulgated by some appropriately endowed authority. Where communication, or promulgation, is impossible, it is difficult to see how an existing convention (which is a co-ordination norm) might be changed. It is of some interest to note that whereas an ‘act of convening’ is not necessary for a convention to form, it might be necessary for an existing convention to be exchanged for an alternative one.”
“The difference in the role played by the two types of norms might now be formulated thus: a co-ordination norm helps those involved ‘meet’ each other; a PD norm helps those involved protect themselves from damaging, even ruining, each other.”
“[T]here are states of inequality which appear on the surface to be stable but which are, in a somewhat subtle and complicated way, strategically unstable. They may be in equilibrium, but it is a rather flimsy one; far from being self-perpetuating, they are susceptible to threats. Now the assumption that the party discriminated in favour of is interested in the preservation of such a status quo leads reasonably to the assumption that he will seek to fortify it against its potential undermining. […] it is the central thesis of this chapter that [a] significant device to render the status quo stable [is] to fortify it by norms. The idea is that once it is in some sense normatively required that the status quo endure, the nature of the possible calculations and considerations of deviance fundamentally changes: it is no longer evaluated only in terms of being ‘costly’ or ‘risky’, but as being ‘wrong‘ or ‘subversive‘. […] the methods of norms and force as possible fortifiers of the status quo in question are functionally equivalent […] provided the norms are effective, they both amount to making deviance from the status quo more costly through the impositions of sanctions.”
“Once norms are internalized, one abides by them not out of fear of the pending sanctions associated with them, but out of some inner conviction. And when this is so, one is likely to conform to the norms even in one’s thoughts, intentions, and in what one does in private.”
“The function of norms, generally speaking, is to put restraints on possible courses of conduct, to restrict the number of alternatives open for action. When a certain course of conduct is normatively denounced (is considered ‘wrong’), it becomes a less eligible course of conduct than it might otherwise have been: although through lying, for example, one might quite conveniently get away with some misdeed, its being recognized and acknowledged as normatively (morally) prohibited normally makes it a less attractive way out, or even precludes its having been considered an alternative in the first place. In this sense, then, norms might be said to be coercive, to the extent that they function as constraints on actions; that is, to the extent that they prevent one for doing an ation one might have done had there been no norm denouncing it, or at least to the extent that they render a certain course of action less eligible than it might otherwise have been.”
“[N]orms are rather easily accepted as part of the ‘natural order of things’. To be sure, one might be quite resentful of this natural order, or of one’s lot therein, and regard it as discriminating against one. But usually there is very little one is going to do about it unless – and until – the object of one’s resentment is personified: only few will start a revolution against an elusive oppressive ‘system’; many more might revolt against an identifiable oppressive ruler. […] These norms have to apply to the privileged as well as to the deprived, or else they lose much of their effectiveness as a disguise for the real exercise of power underlying them. […] The absence of any precedents in which someone privileged was spared the sanction, the absence of any loopholes which might facilitate a discriminatory application of the norms, contribute to their deterrence value”.
The sound quality of this lecture is not completely optimal – there’s a recurring echo popping up now and then which I found slightly annoying – but this should not keep you from watching the lecture. It’s a quite good lecture, and very accessible – I don’t really think you even need to know anything about genetics to follow most of what he’s talking about here; as far as I can tell it’s a lecture intended for people who don’t really know much about population genetics. He introduces key concepts as they are needed and he does not go much into the technical details which might cause people trouble (this of course also makes the lecture somewhat superficial, but you can’t get everything). If you’re the sort of person who wants details not included in the lecture you’re probably already reading e.g. Razib Khan (who incidentally recently blogged/criticized a not too dissimilar paper from the one discussed in the lecture, dealing with South Asia)…
I must admit that I actually didn’t like this lecture very much, but I figured I might as well include it in this post anyway.
I found some questions included and some aspects of the coverage a bit ‘too basic’ for my taste, but other people interested in chess reading along here may like Anna’s approach better; like Krause’s lecture I think it’s an accessible lecture, despite the fact that it actually covers many lines in quite a bit of detail. It’s a long lecture but I don’t think you necessarily need to watch all of it in one go (…or at all?) – the analysis of the second game, the Kortschnoj-Gheorghiu game, starts around 45 minutes in so that might for example be a good place to include a break, if a break is required.
“A commonplace argument in contemporary writing on trust is that we would all be better off if we were all more trusting, and therefore we should all trust more […] Current writings commonly focus on trust as somehow the relevant variable in explaining differences across cases of successful cooperation. Typically, however, the crucial variable is the trustworthiness of those who are to be trusted or relied upon. […] It is not trust per se, but trusting the right people that makes for successful relationships and happiness.”
“If we wish to understand the role of trust in society […], we must get beyond the flaccid – and often wrong – assumption that trust is simply good. This supposition must be heavily qualified, because trusting the malevolent or the radically incompetent can be foolish and often even grossly harmful. […] trust only make[s] sense in dealings with those who are or who could be induced to be trustworthy. To trust the untrustworthy can be disastrous.”
That it’s stupid to trust people who cannot be trusted should in my opinion be blatantly obvious, yet somehow to a lot of people it doesn’t seem to be at all obvious; in light of this problem (…I maintain that this is indeed a problem) the above observations are probably among the most important ones included in Hardin’s book. The book includes some strong criticism of much of the current/extant literature on trust. The two most common fields of study within this area of research are game-theoretic ‘trust games’, which according to the author are ill-named as they don’t really seem to be dealing much, if at all, with the topic of trust, and (poor) survey research which asks people questions which are hard to answer and tend to yield answers which are even harder to interpret. I have included below a few concluding remarks from the chapter on these topics:
“Both of the current empirical research programs on trust are largely misguided. The T-games [‘trust-games’], as played […] do not elicit or measure anything resembling ordinary trust relations; and their findings are basically irrelevant to the modeling and assessment of trust and trustworthiness. The only thing that relates the so-called trust game […] to trust is its name, which is wrong and misleading. Survey questions currently in wide use are radically unconstrained. They therefore force subjects to assume the relevant degrees of constraint, such as how costly the risk of failed cooperation would be. […] In sum, therefore, there is relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs. Without returning their protocols to address standard conceptions of trust, they cannot contribute much to understanding trust as we generally know it, and they cannot play a very constructive role in explaining social behavior, institutions, or social and political change. These are distressing conclusions because both these enterprises have been enormous, and in many ways they have been carried out with admirable care.”
There is ‘relatively little to learn about trust from these two massive research programs’, but one to me potentially important observation, hidden away in the notes at the end of the book, is perhaps worth mentioning here: “There is a commonplace claim that trust will beget trustworthiness […] Schotter [as an aside this guy was incidentally the author of the Micro textbook we used in introductory Microeconomics] and Sopher (2006) do not find this to be true in game experiments that they run, while they do find that trustworthiness (cooperativeness in the play of games) does beget trust (or cooperation).”
There were a few parts of the coverage which confused me somewhat until it occurred to me that the author might not have read Boyd and Richerson, or other people who might have familiarized him with their line of thinking and research (once again, you should read Boyd and Richerson).
Moving on, a few remarks on social capital:
“Like other forms of capital and human capital, social capital is not completely fungible but may be specific to certain activities. A given form of social capital that is valuable in facilitating certain actions may be useless or even harmful for others. […] [A] mistake is the tendency to speak of social capital as though it were a particular kind of thing that has generalized value, as money very nearly does […] it[‘s value] must vary in the sense that what is functional in one context may not be in another.”
It is important to keep in mind that trust which leads to increased cooperation can end up leading to both good outcomes and bad:
“Widespread customs and even very local practices of personal networks can impose destructive norms on people, norms that have all of the structural qualities of interpersonal capital. […] in general, social capital has no normative valence […] It is generally about means for doing things, and the things can be hideously bad as well as good, although the literature on social capital focuses almost exclusively on the good things it can enable and it often lauds social capital as itself a wonderful thing to develop […] Community and social capital are not per se good. It is a grand normative fiction of our time to suppose that they are.”
The book has a chapter specifically about trust on the internet which related to the coverage included in Barak et al.‘s book, a publication which I have unfortunately neglected to blog (this book of course goes into a lot more detail). A key point in that chapter is that the internet is not really all that special in terms of these things, in the sense that to the extent that it facilitates coordination etc., it can be used to accomplish beneficial things as well as harmful things – i.e. it’s also neutrally valenced. Barak et al.‘s book has a lot more stuff about how this medium impacts communication and optimal communication strategies etc., which links in quite a bit with trust aspects, but I won’t go into this stuff here and I’m pretty sure I’ve covered related topics before here on the blog, e.g. back when I covered Hargie.
The chapter about terrorism and distrust had some interesting observations. A few quotes:
“We know from varied contexts that people can have a more positive view of individuals from a group than they have of the group.”
“Mere statistical doubt in the likely trustworthiness of the members of some identifiable group can be sufficient to induce distrust of all members of the group with whom one has no personal relationship on which to have established trust. […] This statistical doubt can trump relational considerations and can block the initial risk-taking that might allow for a test of another individual’s trustworthiness by stereotyping that individual as primarily a member of some group. If there are many people with whom one can have a particular beneficial interaction, narrowing the set by excluding certain stereotypes is efficient […] Unfortunately, however, excluding very systematically on the basis of ethnicity or race becomes pervasively destructive of community relations.”
One thing to keep in mind here is that people’s stereotypes are often quite accurate. When groups don’t trust each other it’s always a lot of fun to argue about who’s to blame for that state of affairs, but it’s important here to keep in mind that both groups will always have mental models of both the in-group and the out-group (see also the coverage below). Also it should be kept in mind that to the extent that people’s stereotypes are accurate, blaming stereotyping behaviours for the problems of the people who get stereotyped is conceptually equivalent to blaming people for discriminating against untrustworthy people by not trusting people who are not trustworthy. You always come back to the problem that what’s at the heart of the matter is never just trust, but rather trustworthiness. To the extent that the two are related, trust follows trustworthiness, not the other way around.
“There’s a fairly extensive literature on so-called generalized trust, which is trust in the anonymous or general other person, including strangers, whom we might encounter, perhaps with some restrictions on what isues would come under that trust. […] [Generalized trust] is an implausible notion. In any real-world context, I trust some more than others and I trust any given person more about some things than about others and more in some contexts than in others. […] Whereas generalized trust or group-generalized trust makes little or no sense (other than as a claim of optimism), group-generalized distrust in many contexts makes very good sense. If you were Jewish, Gypsy, or gay, you had good reason to distrust all officers of the Nazi state and probably most citizens in Nazi Germany as well. American Indians of the western plains had very good reason to distrust whites. During Milosevic’s wars and pogroms, Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims in then Yugoslavia had increasingly good reasons to distrust most members of the other groups, especially while the latter were acting as groups. […] In all of these cases, distrust is defined by the belief that members of the other groups and their representatives are hostile to one’s interests. Trust relationships between members of these various groups are the unusual cases that require explanation; the relatively group-generalized distrust is easy to understand and justify.”
“In the current circumstances of mostly Arab and Islamic terrorism against israel and the West and much of the rest of the world, it is surely a very tiny fraction of all Arabs and Islamists who are genuinely a threat, but the scale of their threat may make many Israelis and westerners wary of virtually all Arabs and Islamists […] many who are not prospects for taking terrorist action evidently sympathize with and even support these actions”
“When cooperation is organized by communal norms, it can become highly exclusionary, so that only members of the community can have cooperative relations with those in the community. In such a case, the norms of cooperativeness are norms of exclusion […] For many fundamentalist groups, continued loyalty to the group and its beliefs is secured by isolating the group and its members from many other influences so that relations within the community are governed by extensive norms of exclusion. When this happens, it is not only trust relations but also basic beliefs that are constrained. If we encounter no one with contrary beliefs our own beliefs will tend to prevail by inertia and lack of questioning and they will be reinforced by our secluded, exclusionary community. There are many strong, extreme beliefs about religious issues as well as about many other things. […] The two matters for which such staunch loyalty to unquestioned beliefs are politically most important are probably religious and nationalist commitments […] Such beliefs are often maintained by blocking our alternative views and by sanctioning those within the group who stray. […] Narrowing one’s associations to others in an isolated extremist group cripples one’s epistemology by blocking out general questioning of the group’s beliefs […] To an outsider those beliefs might be utterly crazy. Indeed, virtually all strong religious beliefs sound crazy or silly to those who do not share them. […] In some ways, the internet allows individuals and small groups to be quite isolated while nevertheless maintaining substantial contact with others of like mind. Islamic terrorists in the West can be almost completely isolated individually while maintaining nearly instant, frequent contact with other and with groups in the Middle East, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, as well as with groups of other potential terrorists in target nations.”
Before I move on to the book coverage, I thought I should mention that people reading along here should expect few updates in the next month or two. I have considered simply taking a break from blogging for a month because I really need to focus on my work, but this seems a bit too radical an approach and I think what I’ll do instead is to e.g. occasionally blog one of the Wodehouse novels which I’ve been reading during the spring; this shouldn’t take too much time or effort, and ‘lazy blogging’ like that may well be all I can justify doing. Maybe I’ll talk about a textbook or two, but don’t expect much ‘serious’ blogging in the near future.
Okay, let’s move on to the book. I’ve read 25 of the 30 chapters, and the coverage will pick up where I left off in my second post.
“Few scholars today claim that there is a direct relationship between environmental scarcity and violent conflict. Accordingly, empirical research increasingly discusses and attempts to identify plausible intervening variables, notably social, political, demographic, or economic mechanisms that together with environmental scarcity may increase the risk of violent conflict. […] frequently suggested intervening variables include food security and migration […]. For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, where inter- and intra-annual rainfall variation is extensive, almost 90 percent of total food production comes from rain-fed agriculture […], implying high social and economic vulnerability to volatile resource supplies.”
“Taken together, this broad literature [on environmental change and armed conflict] offers mixed evidence for a causal relationship. The majority of studies of civil wars and major armed conflict conclude that resource scarcity, population pressure, and weather patterns exhibit weak influences on conflict risk, compared to structural economic and institutional features. Moreover, those that report a significant correlation disagree on the direction and magnitude of the effect.”
“Children recruited into armed groups in one conflict often end up fighting in other regional conflicts as ‘floating warriors’ capitalising on porous borders to travel wherever there was a market for their newly learned trade. In certain regions of recurrent conflict, large pools of ex-combatants as well as children exist as potential recruits for armed groups lured by the opportunity to share in the spoils of war. […] Such dynamics underline the problem of regional zones of instability or ‘conflict complexes’. War economies spread beyond borders and networks of mercenaries, illegal trading and organised crime spread instability.”
“Scholars of civil war often mistake the causes of the onset of armed conflict with the factors which explain the continuation of war. Many studies seem to implicitly argue that when understanding its causes, we understand the continuation of war. […] War may [however] break out for one set of issues but might continue for a completely different and changing set of reasons. As a result of interaction between the belligerents new reasons and stimuli for conflict develop. […] These developments can significantly complicate the picture that civil war presents and do not necessarily make it easier to work towards resolution. […] Two important causal mechanisms can be distinguished that hold explanatory power for the continuation of conflict. […] For the continuation of violence one observed causal mechanism is the provocation trap. An important theory developed by insurgents since the nineteenth century aims to play on the calculations of the political decision-makers by provoking violence from the state, which generally acts as a forceful recruiting mechanism for insurgent groups […] The second mechanism can be called the counter-measure imperative. The counter-measure imperative is the commonly observable chain of events after an attack against unarmed and unwitting targets. A public outcry occurs and political decision-makers feel forced to respond. Doing nothing is often not an option in terms of political capital and electoral consequences, at least in most democratic societies. James Fearon has called this “audience costs” in the context of international crises […] Weakness in times of crisis can be political – or electoral – suicide. Therefore, there is a strong tendency to institute one stringent measure after another. Repression, the use of force and police action are just a few of the instruments that can be used […] These mechanisms trigger state violence both from a push and pull perspective and are very powerful to propel a struggle forward. Discontinuing civil war by not buying into the provocation trap and counter-measure imperative is extremely difficult, given the primary demands made of the state to uphold its monopoly of force and to protect its population.”
“Most studies looking into the dynamics or continuation of conflict see the increase or decrease in capabilities as an important explanatory factor for the continuation or discontinuation of civil war. […] The termination of civil war has in several studies been strongly linked to cutting off the capabilities and supplies of belligerents. Paul Staniland concludes that “the best offense is a fence” (Staniland 2006; see also Record 2007). When capabilities are compromised by cutting off the replenishment of men and material that are necessary to continue the struggle, wars wither down.”
“For those gathering conflict data, obtaining accurate numbers of fatalities is one of the most complicated and difficult tasks due to a plethora of problems, including misuse of the terms “casualties” and “fatalities,” political reasons for either the under-reporting or exaggeration of fatalities, and either a lack of information or the presence of conflicting information in the available sources […] In addressing the sources of bias in fatality statistics Gohdes and Price (2012: 9) note that the higher the visibility of the act of violence, the more likely it (and its fatalities) will be reported. Visibility can be reflected in the magnitude of armed conflict, wars are more visible than minor disputes; but visibility can also be related to the types of participants or fatalities, with deaths of those in uniform, whose job it is to fight being more visible than deaths of civilians. Visibility leads to a greater likelihood that fatalities will be reported, thus making them more reliable. As Lacina and Gleditsch note (2012: 3) the tallies provided by military agencies of personnel killed in action are very credible data. It was considerations such as these that led COW to make different choices than UCDP, in ways in which it codifies and gathers data about armed conflict: focusing primarily on higher fatality levels (war), using the war as the primary unit of analysis, and counting deaths only among combatants (rather than combatants and civilians).”
“Utilizing the COW datasets on war, one gains a perspective on the trends in warfare that varies significantly from those that utilize UCDP/PRIO data […] A fundamental difference is merely the timeframe covered, with COW examining wars after 1815 and UCDP/PRIO focusing upon the post-World War II era. An analysis of trends in all COW wars types for the period 1816 to 2007 […] concluded that there is a relative constancy over time in war behavior. […] Intra-state wars are the most numerous of the four major COW categories, constituting 52 percent of all of the COW wars [and there has been a] significant increase in intra-state wars since the end of World War II. […] Of the 192 years in the 1816–2007 period, there is an average number of 1.6 civil war onsets per year, and only 52 years (27 percent) experienced no civil war onsets. […] If one looks at the number of civil wars experienced by the various regions of the world […], the numbers look fairly comparable […] All in all, this analysis does not promote optimism about the trends in civil war for the remainder of the twenty-first century. The Human Security Report’s (2011) emphasis on the decline in civil war since the end of the Cold War ignores the fact that civil war onsets (even after the highpoints of 1989 and 1991) are at historically high levels with an average of 2.8 civil war onsets per year from 1992 to 2007 (compared to the yearly average of 1.6 onsets from 1816 to 2007). These figures hardly portend the end of civil war.”
“There are multiple ways to distinguish types of civil wars: whether they are ethnically motivated […], whether they are driven by attempts at secession or control of the central government […], or whether they involve lootable resources […]. Another way to distinguish different types of civil wars is to examine the military tactics used by each side in the conflict. […] Kalyvas and Balcells (2010) […] identify three technologies of rebellion that are used in civil war: irregular warfare, conventional warfare, and symmetric non-conventional warfare. Irregular war, or insurgency, occurs when the state’s military capabilities exceed those of the rebels. Conventional civil war occurs when both the state and the rebels are militarily matched at a high level, and symmetric non-conventional war happens when both the state and the rebels are militarily matched, but at a lower level. […] [They] show that irregular wars comprise just over half of the civil wars between 1944 and 2004 [and that] the end of the Cold War resulted in a decrease in the percentage of conflicts that were irregular […] from about two-thirds during the Cold War to about one-quarter after 1991 […] irregular wars last longer and are more likely to be won by the incumbent as compared to both conventional wars and symmetric non-conventional wars.”
“Findley and Young (2012) […] find that a majority of terrorist acts occur in the context of civil war, which suggests that this is an important tactic in the context of the larger struggle between state and non-state actors. […] Lake (2002), among others, has argued that terrorism is often used in conflicts to provoke a disproportionate response from the state. […] Kydd and Walter (2006) argue that terrorism can be used to spoil potential peace among moderate factions in a civil war and empirical evidence supports this claim (Findley and Young, 2013).”
“While sexual violence against civilians in conflict is pervasive, it is not ubiquitous. There are conflicts where systematic sexual violence is completely absent, showing that, contrary to popular belief, sexual violence is not an inherent component of conflict […] Sexual violence in conflict creates disorder in communities by violating social norms and dissolving social bonds through humiliation, shame, and terror […]. The breakdown of the rule of law and social norms has an impact upon the whole community, not just the victims of the violence. Formal and informal social controls are diminished during civil war and communities in conflict lack a functional formal system to maintain order. […] Whether sexual violence is primarily a consequence of the strategy or tactic of leaders or the lack of control of militaries is an ongoing debate.”
“forced migration is not simply a function of conflict and insecurity. Rather, security concerns interact with economic “push” factors in sending regions and “pull” factors in receiving areas. […] it is difficult to disentangle security motives from economic ones […] When governments deliberately target political or ethnic opponents, people are more likely to cross borders as compared with general turmoil in civil wars and dissident violence. […] In addition, better economic conditions and political stability in neighboring states make it more likely that individuals will cross an international border, demonstrating the importance of pull factors in receiving countries. […] Proximity to the conflict country exerts a very large effect on destination choice as does the presence of a large diaspora population. […] Bohra-Mishra and Massey (2011) find that low levels of violence actually discourage migration, perhaps because unsafe travel conditions make it more likely that people will hunker down and stay at home to protect their assets. Only at a high threshold of violence are people willing to leave. Engel and Ibáñez (2007) find that owning land interacts with violence. People with more land are less willing to move since they would lose a fixed asset, but at the same time, large landowners are more likely to be threatened with violence. Confronted with low levels of violence, landowners are more likely to stay put, but become increasingly likely to flee as violence gets worse. […] Greenhill (2010) examines the strategic use of forced migration as a negotiating tactic in interstate relations. In many cases, sending states have “engineered” refugee flows in such a way so as to extract concessions from migrant-receiving states. […] several themes have emerged in the literature on the causes of forced migration. First, refugees are not choice-less, but are strategic actors who weigh the various options available to them, even if choice is in the context of extreme violence. Second, forced migration and economic migration are not mutually exclusive categories; rather, security, economics, and social networks all shape migration decisions to a greater or lesser degree. Finally, perpetrators of violence understand the effects of forced migration and displacement, and use refugee flows and “cleansing” as a way to further their political aims.”
“Refugee communities can also foster conflict in host countries, either through mobilization into militant factions, or by the mere presence of ethnically different “foreigners” and economic competitors. Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) start with the observation that civil wars often cluster in space – when one country experiences civil war its neighbors are significantly more likely to fall into conflict themselves. They then argue that refugee migration facilitates the transnational spread of militant networks as well as presents negative externalities for receiving areas – such as ethnic competition or economic burdens – increasing the risk of conflict in refugee hosts. Through statistical testing they demonstrate that hosting a large number of refugees does indeed raise the risk of conflict. […] scholars have [also] noted a link between civil war and international conflict: countries that are faced with domestic unrest are more likely to become involved in disputes with their neighbors […] Refugee flows are one potential source of friction between states and can become a cause of international armed conflict. […] Statistically, Salehyan (2008) confirms a general pattern that refugee flows between two countries are associated with militarized interstate disputes (MIDs). Controlling for an array of factors known to be associated with international conflict, hosting 100,000 refugees from another country raises the probability that the host will initiate a conflict against the sender by 96 percent. On the flip side, the sending state is over 90 percent more likely to launch an MID against the host. Therefore, while international relations scholars have focused on variables such as the power balance, democracy, and territorial issues, a significant share of interstate conflict stems from the external effects of domestic unrest and refugee flows.”
“[One] typological approach to understanding violence against civilians is to focus on the military capacity of the actors, usually with a dyadic approach which identifies the relative strength of actors. A general finding is that relatively weak actors are more likely to target civilians. […] Regarding government violence, Valentino et al. (2004) show that governments who face strong rebel groups with a strong civilian base are more likely to engage in mass killings. […] While selective violence is useful for controlling a population (in areas where such control is feasible to uphold through violence), indiscriminate violence seems to follow a logic of weakening the adversary in their strongholds. […] A few studies have examined to what extent violence against civilians occurs as a response to violence against civilians by the adversary. […] Taken together, these studies suggest that there is some evidence for a cycle-of-violence dynamic. […] Hultman (2007) shows that when rebels lose on the battlefield, they tend to shift strategy towards more targeting of civilians and less targeting of government forces. Wood et al. (2012) also focus on shifts in relative power, showing that exogenously imposed power shifts through armed interventions into civil wars increase the level of violence against civilians by the actor that is disadvantaged by the intervention. Hence, rather than concluding that weak actors are more likely to target civilians, these findings show that actors are more likely to target civilians in response to being weakened as a consequence of the war.”
“Numbers from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) Conflict Termination Project1 (Kreutz 2010) reveal the average length of civil wars episodes from 1946 to 2009 is approximately 1647 days […] Fearon (2004) links war type to civil war duration. Coups and revolutions seek quick outright victories. Failing this, coup organizers will likely face imprisonment, death, or exile. The strategy in territorial wars – which are usually fought on the periphery – is to continue the fight to win more concessions at the bargaining table. Peripheral wars do not necessarily need outright military victory to realize important goals. Rebels in these wars have more time. […] There were approximately 30 military coups between 1946 and 2009 identified in the Uppsala Conflict Termination data […] Peripheral/territorial wars tend to endure and are unlikely to end conclusively with peace agreements or military victories. According to the Uppsala Conflict Termination data, the mean duration of territorial wars from 1946 to 2010 is 1826.7 days […] Wars over control of government, on the other hand, typically do not last as long […] we find that the mean duration of these wars is 1456.7 days between 1946 and 2010.”
“Whereas several scholars [have noted] that ethnic/secessionist wars are more intractable than wars over government, there is not a wealth of empirical evidence directly linking war type to recurrence. […] The duration of peace after a civil war has been shown to have a negative impact on recurrence […]. In other words if peace has lasted 20 years after a war has ended, the probability of war in a future year is quite low. […] Civil war duration tends to increase when credible commitment is lacking, the war is ethnic/ peripheral, there are lootable natural resources the rebels can exploit, there are spoilers and a good number of veto players, and when there is third-party intervention. “Reversing” these factors makes for shorter wars. The factors are cumulative in that an ethnic war in the presence of lootable resources, low credible commitment, and spoilers will be expected to last a very long time. Wars over government with no spoilers or lootables will be expected to be shorter. Civil wars are more likely to recur if the war is ethnic/peripheral, credible commitment is lacking, the outcome is one of negotiated settlement, the war did not see an exceptionally high death rate, there are factors conducive to rebel recruitment such as low democracy and a weak economy at war’s end, there are valuable natural resources present in the rebel territory, the war is not mediated, and there is no effective peacekeeping operation.”
Here’s my first post about the book. In this post I’ll continue my coverage where I left off in my first post. A few of the chapters covered below I did not think very highly of, but other parts of the coverage are about as good as you could expect (given problems such as e.g. limited data etc.). Some of the stuff I found quite interesting. As people will note in the coverage below the book does address the religious dimension to some extent, though in my opinion far from to the extent that the variable deserves. An annoying aspect of the chapter on religion was to me that although the author of the chapter includes data which to me cannot but lead to some very obvious conclusions, the author seems to be very careful avoiding drawing those conclusions explicitly. It’s understandable, but still annoying. For related reasons I also got annoyed at him for presumably deliberately completely disregarding which seems in the context of his own coverage to be an actually very important component of Huntington’s thesis, that conflict at the micro level seems to very often be between muslims and ‘the rest’. Here’s a relevant quote from Clash…, p. 255:
“ethnic conflicts and fault line wars have not been evenly distributed among the world’s civilizations. Major fault line fighting has occurred between Serbs and Croats in the former Yugoslavia and between Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, while less violent conflicts took place between non-Muslim groups in a few other places. The overwhelming majority of fault line conflicts, however, have taken place along the boundary looping across Eurasia and Africa that separates Muslims from non-Muslims. While at the macro or global level of world politics the primary clash of civilizations is between the West and the rest, at the micro or local level it is between Islam and the others.”
This point, that conflict at the local level – which seems to be the type of conflict level you’re particularly interested in if you’re researching civil wars, as also argued in previous chapters in the coverage – according to Huntington seems to be very islam-centric, is completely overlooked (ignored?) in the handbook chapter, and if you haven’t read Huntington and your only exposure to him is through the chapter in question you’ll probably conclude that Huntington was wrong, because that seems to be the conclusion the author draws, arguing that other models are more convincing (I should add here that these other models do seem useful, at least in terms of providing (superficial) explanations; the point is just that I feel the author is misrepresenting Huntington and I dislike this). Although there are parts of the coverage in that chapter where I feel that it’s obvious the author and I do not agree, I should note that the fact that he talks about the data and the empirical research makes up for a lot of other stuff.
Anyway, on to the coverage – it’s perhaps worth noting, in light of the introductory remarks above, that the post has stuff on a lot of things besides religion, e.g. the role of natural resources, regime types, migration, and demographics.
“Elites seeking to end conflict must: (1) lead followers to endorse and support peaceful solutions; (2) contain spoilers and extremists and prevent them from derailing the process of peacemaking; and (3) forge coalitions with more moderate members of the rival ethnic group(s) […]. An important part of the two-level nature of the ethnic conflict is that each of the elites supporting the peace process be able to present themselves, and the resulting terms of the peace, as a “win” for their ethnic community. […] A strategy that a state may pursue to resolve ethnic conflict is to co-opt elites from the ethnic communities demanding change […]. By satisfying elites, it reduces the ability of the aggrieved ethnic community to mobilize. Such a process of co-option can also be used to strengthen ethnic moderates in order to undermine ethnic extremists. […] the co-opted elites need to be careful to be seen as still supporting ethnic demands or they may lose all credibility in their respective ethnic community. If this occurs, the likely outcome is that more extreme ethnic elites will be able to capture the ethnic community, possibly leading to greater violence.
It is important to note that “spoilers,” be they an individual or a small sub-group within an ethnic community, can potentially derail any peace process, even if the leaders and masses support peace (Stedman, 2001).”
“Three separate categories of international factors typically play into identity and ethnic conflict. The first is the presence of an ethnic community across state boundaries. Thus, a single community exists in more than one state and its demands become international. […] This division of an ethnic community can occur when a line is drawn geographically through a community […], when a line is drawn and a group moves into the new state […], or when a diaspora moves a large population from one state to another […] or when sub-groups of an ethnic community immigrate to the developed world […] When ethnic communities cross state boundaries, the potential for one state to support an ethnic community in the other state exists. […] There is also the potential for ethnic communities to send support to a conflict […] or to lobby their government to intervene […]. Ethnic groups may also form extra-state militias and cross international borders. Sometimes these rebel groups can be directly or indirectly sponsored by state governments, leading to a very complex situation […] A second set of possible international factors is non-ethnic international intervention. A powerful state may decide to intervene in an ethnic conflict for a variety of reasons, ranging from humanitarian support, to peacekeeping, to outright invasion […] The third and last factor is the commitment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or third-party mediators to a conflict. […] The record of international interventions in ethnic civil wars is quite mixed. There are many difficulties associated with international action [and] international groups cannot actually change the underlying root of the ethnic conflict (Lake and Rothchild, 1998; Kaufman, 1996).”
“A relatively simple way to think of conflict onset is to think that for a rebellion to occur two conditions need to be satisfactorily fulfilled: There must be a motivation and there must be an opportunity to rebel.3 First, the rebels need a motive. This can be negative – a grievance against the existing state of affairs – or positive – a desire to capture resource rents. Second, potential rebels need to be able to achieve their goal: The realization of their desires may be blocked by the lack of financial means. […] Work by Collier and Hoeffler (1998, 2004) was crucial in highlighting the economic motivation behind civil conflicts. […] Few conflicts, if any, can be characterized purely as “resource conflicts.” […] It is likely that few groups are solely motivated by resource looting, at least in the lower rank level. What is important is that valuable natural resources create opportunities for conflicts. To feed, clothe, and arm its members, a rebel group needs money. Unless the rebel leaders are able to raise sufficient funds, a conflict is unlikely to start no matter how severe the grievances […] As a consequence, feasibility of conflict – that is, valuable natural resources providing opportunity to engage in violent conflict – has emerged as a key to understanding the relation between valuable resources and conflict.”
“It is likely that some natural resources are more associated with conflict than others. Early studies on armed civil conflict used resource measures that aggregated different types of resources together. […] With regard to financing conflict start-up and warfare the most salient aspect is probably the ease with which a resource can be looted. Lootable resources can be extracted with simple methods by individuals or small groups, are easy to transport, and can be smuggled across borders with limited risks. Examples of this type of resources are alluvial gemstones and gold. By contrast, deep-shaft minerals, oil, and natural gas are less lootable and thus less likely sources of financing. […] Using comprehensive datasets on all armed civil conflicts in the world, natural resource production, and other relevant aspects such as political regime, economic performance, and ethnic composition, researchers have established that at least some high-value natural resources are related to higher risk of conflict onset. Especially salient in this respect seem to be oil and secondary diamonds […] The results regarding timber […] and cultivation of narcotics […] are inconclusive. […] [An] important conclusion is that natural resources should be considered individually and not lumped together. Diamonds provide an illustrative example: the geological form of the diamond deposit is related to its effect on conflict. Secondary diamonds – the more lootable form of two deposit types – makes conflict more likely, longer, and more severe. Primary diamonds on the other hand are generally not related to conflict.”
“Analysis on conflict duration and severity confirm that location is a salient factor: resources matter for duration and severity only when located in the region where the conflict is taking place […] That the location of natural resources matters has a clear and important implication for empirical conflict research: relying on country-level aggregates can lead to wrong conclusions about the role of natural resources in armed civil conflict. As a consequence of this, there has been effort to collect location-specific data on oil, gas, drug cultivation, and gemstones”.
“a number of prominent studies of ethnic conflict have suggested that when ethnic groups grow at different rates, this may lead to fears of an altered political balance, which in turn might cause political instability and violent conflict […]. There is ample anecdotal evidence for such a relationship [but unfortunately little quantitative research…]. The civil war in Lebanon, for example, has largely been attributed to a shift in the delicate ethnic balance in that state […]. Further, in the early 1990s, radical Serb leaders were agitating for the secession of “Serbian” areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina by instigating popular fears that Serbs would soon be outnumbered by a growing Muslim population heading for the establishment of a Shari’a state”.
“[One] part of the demography-conflict literature has explored the role of population movements. Most of this literature […] treats migration and refugee flows as a consequence of conflict rather than a potential cause. Some scholars, however, have noted that migration, and refugee migration in particular, can spur the spread of conflict both between and within states […]. Existing work suggests that environmentally induced migration can lead to conflict in receiving areas due to competition for scarce resources and economic opportunities, ethnic tensions when migrants are from different ethnic groups, and exacerbation of socioeconomic “fault lines” […] Salehyan and Gleditsch (2006) point to spill-over effects, in the sense that mass refugee migration might spur tensions in neighboring or receiving states by imposing an economic burden and causing political stability [sic]. […] Based on a statistical analysis of refugees from neighboring countries and civil war onset during the period 1951–2001, they find that countries that experience an influx of refugees from neighboring states are significantly more likely to experience wars themselves. […] While the youth bulge hypothesis [large groups of young males => higher risk of violence/war/etc.] in general is supported by empirical evidence, indicating that countries and areas with large youth cohorts are generally at a greater risk of low-intensity conflict, the causal pathways relating youth bulges to increased conflict propensity remain largely unexplored quantitatively. When it comes to the demographic factors which have so far received less attention in terms of systematic testing – skewed sex ratios, differential ethnic growth, migration, and urbanization – the evidence is somewhat mixed […] a clear challenge with regard to the study of demography and conflict pertains to data availability and reliability. […] Countries that are undergoing armed conflict are precisely those for which we need data, but also those in which census-taking is hampered by violence.”
“Most research on the duration of civil war find that civil wars in democracies tend to be longer than other civil wars […] Research on conflict severity finds some evidence that democracies tend to see fewer battledeaths and are less likely to target civilians, suggesting that democratic institutions may induce some important forms of restraints in armed conflict […] Many researchers have found that democratization often precedes an increase in the risk of the onset of armed conflict. Hegre et al. (2001), for example, find that the risk of civil war onset is almost twice as high a year after a regime change as before, controlling for the initial level of democracy […] Many argue that democratic reforms come about when actors are unable to rule unilaterally and are forced to make concessions to an opposition […] The actual reforms to the political system we observe as democratization often do not suffice to reestablish an equilibrium between actors and the institutions that regulate their interactions; and in its absence, a violent power struggle can follow. Initial democratic reforms are often only partial, and may fail to satisfy the full demands of civil society and not suffice to reduce the relevant actors’ motivation to resort to violence […] However, there is clear evidence that the sequence matters and that the effect [the increased risk of civil war after democratization, US] is limited to the first election. […] civil wars […] tend to be settled more easily in states with prior experience of democracy […] By our count, […] 75 percent of all annual observations of countries with minor or major armed conflicts occur in non-democracies […] Democracies have an incidence of major armed conflict of only 1 percent, whereas nondemocracies have a frequency of 5.6 percent.”
“Since the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, religious conflicts and the rise of international terror organizations have made it difficult to ignore the facts that religious factors can contribute to conflict and that religious actors can cause or participate in domestic conflicts. Despite this, comprehensive studies of religion and domestic conflict remain relatively rare. While the reasons for this rarity are complex there are two that stand out. First, for much of the twentieth century the dominant theory in the field was secularization theory, which predicted that religion would become irrelevant and perhaps extinct in modern times. While not everyone agreed with this extreme viewpoint, there was a consensus that religious influences on politics and conflict were a waning concern. […] This theory was dominant in sociology for much of the twentieth century and effectively dominated political science, under the title of modernization theory, for the same period. […] Today supporters of secularization theory are clearly in the minority. However, one of their legacies has been that research on religion and conflict is a relatively new field. […] Second, as recently as 2006, Brian Grim and Roger Finke lamented that “religion receives little attention in international quantitative studies. Including religion in cross-national studies requires data, and high-quality data are in short supply” […] availability of the necessary data to engage in quantitative research on religion and civil wars is a relatively recent development.”
“[Some] studies [have] found that conflicts involving actors making religious demands – such as demanding a religious state or a significant increase in religious legislation – were less likely to be resolved with negotiated settlements; a negotiated settlement is possible if the settlement focused on the non-religious aspects of the conflict […] One study of terrorism found that terror groups which espouse religious ideologies tend to be more violent (Henne, 2012). […] The clear majority of quantitative studies of religious conflict focus solely on inter-religious conflicts. Most of them find religious identity to influence the extent of conflict […] but there are some studies which dissent from this finding”.
“Terror is most often selected by groups that (1) have failed to achieve their goals through peaceful means, (2) are willing to use violence to achieve their goals, and (3) do not have the means for higher levels of violence.”
“the PITF dataset provides an accounting of the number of domestic conflicts that occurred in any given year between 1960 and 2009. […] Between 1960 and 2009 the modified dataset includes 817 years of ethnic war, 266 years of genocides/politicides, and 477 years of revolutionary wars. […] Cases were identified as religious or not religious based on the following categorization:
1 Not Religious.
2 Religious Identity Conflict: The two groups involved in the conflict belong to different religions or different denominations of the same religion.
3 Religious Wars: The two sides of the conflict belong to the same religion but the description of the conflict provided by the PITF project identifies religion as being an issue in the conflict. This typically includes challenges by religious fundamentalists to more secular states. […]
The results show that both numerically and as a proportion of all conflict, religious state failures (which include both religious identity conflicts and religious wars) began increasing in the mid-1970s. […] As a proportion of all conflict, religious state failures continued to increase and became a majority of all state failures in 2002. From 2002 onward, religious state failures were between 55 percent and 62 percent of all state failures in any given year.”
“Between 2002 and 2009, eight of 12 new state failures were religious. All but one of the new religious state failures were ongoing as of 2009. These include:
• 2002: A rebellion in the Muslim north of the Ivory Coast (ended in 2007)
• 2003: The beginning of the Sunni–Shia violent conflict in Iraq (ongoing)
• 2003: The resumption of the ethnic war in the Sudan [97% muslims, US] (ongoing)
• 2004: Muslim militants challenged Pakistan’s government in South and North Waziristan. This has been followed by many similar attacks (ongoing)
• 2004: Outbreak of violence by Muslims in southern Thailand (ongoing)
• 2004: In Yemen [99% muslims, US], followers of dissident cleric Husain Badr al-Din al-Huthi create a stronghold in Saada. Al-Huthi was killed in September 2004, but serious fighting begins again in early 2005 (ongoing)
• 2007: Ethiopia’s invasion of southern Somalia causes a backlash in the Muslim (ethnic- Somali) Ogaden region (ongoing)
• 2008: Islamist militants in the eastern Trans-Caucasus region of Russia bordering on Georgia (Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia) reignited their violent conflict against Russia (ongoing)” [my bold]
“There are few additional studies which engage in this type of longitudinal analysis. Perhaps the most comprehensive of such studies is presented in Toft et al.’s (2011) book God’s Century based on data collected by Toft. They found that religious conflicts – defined as conflicts with a religious content – rose from 19 percent of all civil wars in the 1940s to about half of civil wars during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Of these religious conflicts, 82 percent involved Muslims. This analysis includes only 135 civil wars during this period. The lower number is due to a more restrictive definition of civil war which includes at least 1,000 battle deaths. This demonstrates that the findings presented above also hold when looking at the most violent of civil wars.” [my bold]
“This comprehensive new Handbook explores the significance and nature of armed intrastate conflict and civil war in the modern world.
Civil wars and intrastate conflict represent the principal form of organised violence since the end of World War II, and certainly in the contemporary era. These conflicts have a huge impact and drive major political change within the societies in which they occur, as well as on an international scale. The global importance of recent intrastate and regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nepal, Côte d’Ivoire, Syria and Libya – amongst others – has served to refocus academic and policy interest upon civil war. […] This volume will be of much interest to students of civil wars and intrastate conflict, ethnic conflict, political violence, peace and conflict studies, security studies and IR in general.”
I’m currently reading this handbook. One observation I’ll make here before moving on to the main coverage is that although I’ve read more than 100 pages and although every single one of the conflicts argued in the introduction above to be motivating study into these topics aside from one (the exception being Nepal) involve muslims, the word ‘islam’ has been mentioned exactly once in the coverage so far (an updated list would arguably include yet another muslim country, Yemen, as well). I noted while doing the text search that they seem to take up the topic of religion and religious motivation later on, so I sort of want to withhold judgment for now, but if they don’t deal more seriously with this topic later on than they have so far, I’ll have great difficulties giving this book a high rating, despite the coverage being in general actually quite interesting, detailed and well written so far – chapter 7, on so-called ‘critical perspectives’ is in my opinion a load of crap [a few illustrative quotes/words/concepts from that chapter: “Frankfurt School-inspired Critical Theory”, “approaches such as critical constructivism, post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism”, “an openly ethical–normative commitment to human rights, progressive politics”, “labelling”, “dialectical”, “power–knowledge structures”, “conflict discourses”, “Foucault”, “an abiding commitment to being aware of, and trying to overcome, the Eurocentric, Orientalist and patriarchal forms of knowledge often prevalent within civil war studies”, “questioning both morally and intellectually the dominant paradigm”… I read the chapter very fast, to the point of almost only skimming it, and I have not quoted from that chapter in my coverage below, for reasons which should be obvious – I was reminded of Poe’s Corollary while reading the chapter as I briefly started wondering along the way if the chapter was an elaborate joke which had somehow made it into the publication, and I also briefly was reminded of the Sokal affair, mostly because of the unbelievable amount of meaningless buzzwords], but that’s just one chapter and most of the others so far have been quite okay. A few of the points in the problematic chapter are actually arguably worth having in mind, but there’s so much bullshit included as well that you’re having a really hard time taking any of it seriously.
Some observations from the first 100 pages:
“There are wide differences of opinion across the broad field of scholars who work on civil war regarding the basis of legitimate and scientific knowledge in this area, on whether cross-national studies can generate reliable findings, and on whether objective, value-free analysis of armed conflict is possible. All too often – and perhaps increasingly so, with the rise in interest in econometric approaches – scholars interested in civil war from different methodological traditions are isolated from each other. […] even within the more narrowly defined empirical approaches to civil war studies there are major disagreements regarding the most fundamental questions relating to contemporary civil wars, such as the trends in numbers of armed conflicts, whether civil wars are changing in nature, whether and how international actors can have a role in preventing, containing and ending civil wars, and the significance of [various] factors”.
“In simplest terms civil war is a violent conflict between a government and an organized rebel group, although some scholars also include armed conflicts primarily between non-state actors within their study. The definition of a civil war, and the analytical means of differentiating a civil war from other forms of large-scale violence, has been controversial […] The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) uses 25 battle-related deaths per year as the threshold to be classified as armed conflict, and – in common with other datasets such as the Correlates of War (COW) – a threshold of 1,000 battle-related deaths for a civil war. While this is now widely endorsed, debate remains regarding the rigor of this definition […] differences between two of the main quantitative conflict datasets – the UCDP and the COW – in terms of the measurement of armed conflict result in significant differences in interpreting patterns of conflict. This has led to conflicting findings not only about absolute numbers of civil wars, but also regarding trends in the numbers of such conflicts. […] According to the UCDP/PRIO data, from 1946 to 2011 a total of 102 countries experienced civil wars. Africa witnessed the most with 40 countries experiencing civil wars between 1946 and 2011. During this period 20 countries in the Americas experienced civil war, 18 in Asia, 13 in Europe, and 11 in the Middle East […]. There were 367 episodes (episodes in this case being separated by at least one year without at least 25 battle-related deaths) of civil wars from 1946 to 2009 […]. The number of active civil wars generally increased from the end of the Cold War to around 1992 […]. Since then the number has been in decline, although whether this is likely to be sustained is debatable. In terms of onset of first episode by region from 1946 to 2011, Africa leads the way with 75, followed by Asia with 67, the Western Hemisphere with 33, the Middle East with 29, and Europe with 25 […]. As Walter (2011) has observed, armed conflicts are increasingly concentrated in poor countries. […] UCDP reports 137 armed conflicts for the period 1989–2011. For the overlapping period 1946–2007, COW reports 179 wars, while UCDP records 244 armed conflicts. As most of these conflicts have been fought over disagreements relating to conditions within a state, it means that civil war has been the most common experience of war throughout this period.”
“There were 3 million deaths from civil wars with no international intervention between 1946 and 2008. There were 1.5 million deaths in wars where intervention occurred. […] In terms of region, there were approximately 350,000 civil war-related deaths in both Europe and the Middle East from the years 1946 to 2008. There were 467,000 deaths in the Western Hemisphere, 1.2 million in Africa, and 3.1 million in Asia for the same period […] In terms of historical patterns of civil wars and intrastate armed conflict more broadly, the most conspicuous trend in recent decades is an apparent decline in absolute numbers, magnitude, and impact of armed conflicts, including civil wars. While there is wide – but not total – agreement regarding this, the explanations for this downward trend are contested. […] the decline seems mainly due not to a dramatic decline of civil war onsets, but rather because armed conflicts are becoming shorter in duration and they are less likely to recur. While this is undoubtedly welcome – and so is the tendency of civil wars to be generally smaller in magnitude – it should not obscure the fact that civil wars are still breaking out at a rate that has been fairly static in recent decades.”
“there is growing consensus on a number of findings. For example, intrastate armed conflict is more likely to occur in poor, developing countries with weak state structures. In situations of weak states the presence of lootable natural resources and oil increase the likelihood of experiencing armed conflict. Dependency upon the export of primary commodities is also a vulnerability factor, especially in conjunction with drastic fluctuations in international market prices which can result in economic shocks and social dislocation. State weakness is relevant to this – and to most of the theories regarding armed conflict proneness – because such states are less able to cushion the impact of economic shocks. […] Authoritarian regimes as well as entrenched democracies are less likely to experience civil war than societies in-between […] Situations of partial or weak democracy (anocracy) and political transition, particularly a movement towards democracy in volatile or divided societies, are also strongly correlated to conflict onset. The location of a society – especially if it has other vulnerability factors – in a region which has contiguous neighbors which are experiencing or have experienced armed conflict is also an armed conflict risk.”
“Military intervention aimed at supporting a protagonist or influencing the outcome of a conflict tends to increase the intensity of civil wars and increase their duration […] It is commonly argued that wars ending with military victory are less likely to recur […]. In these terminations one side no longer exists as a fighting force. Negotiated settlements, on the other hand, are often unstable […] The World Development Report 2011 notes that 90 percent of the countries with armed conflicts taking place in the first decade of the 2000s also had a major armed conflict in the preceding 30 years […] of the 137 armed conflicts that were fought after 1989 100 had ended by 2011, while 37 were still ongoing”
“Cross-national, aggregated, analysis has played a leading role in strengthening the academic and policy impact of conflict research through the production of rigorous research findings. However, the […] aggregation of complex variables has resulted in parsimonious findings which arguably neglect the complexity of armed conflict; simultaneously, differences in the codification and definition of key concepts result in contradictory findings. The growing popularity of micro-studies is therefore an important development in the field of civil war studies, and one that responds to the demand for more nuanced analysis of the dynamics of conflict at the local level.”
“Jason Quinn, University of Notre Dame, has calculated that the number of scholarly articles on the onset of civil wars published in the first decade of the twenty-first century is larger than the previous five decades combined”.
“One of the most challenging aspects of quantitative analysis is transforming social concepts into numerical values. This difficulty means that many of the variables used to capture theoretical constructs represent crude indicators of the real concept […] econometric studies of civil war must account for the endogenising effect of civil war on other variables. Civil war commonly lowers institutional capacity and reduces economic growth, two of the primary conditions that are consistently shown to motivate civil violence. Scholars have grown more capable of modelling this process […], but still too frequently fail to capture the endogenising effect of civil conflict on other variables […] the problems associated with the rare nature of civil conflict can [also] cause serious problems in a number of econometric models […] Case-based analysis commonly suffers from two fundamental problems: non-generalisability and selection bias. […] Combining research methods can help to enhance the validity of both quantitative and qualitative research. […] the combination of methods can help quantitative researchers address measurement issues, assess outliers, discuss variables omitted from the large-N analysis, and examine cases incorrectly predicted by econometric models […] The benefits of mixed methods research designs have been clearly illustrated in a number of prominent studies of civil war […] Yet unfortunately the bifurcation of conflict studies into qualitative and quantitative branches makes this practice less common than is desirable.”
“Ethnography has elicited a lively critique from within and without anthropology. […] Ethnographers stand accused of argument by ostension (pointing at particular instances as indicative of a general trend). The instances may not even be true. This is one of the reasons that the economist Paul Collier rejected ethnographic data as a source of insight into the causes of civil wars (Collier 2000b). According to Collier, the ethnographer builds on anecdotal evidence offered by people with good reasons to fabricate their accounts. […] The story fits the fact. But so might other stories. […] [It might be categorized as] a discipline that still combines a mix of painstaking ethnographic documentation with brilliant flights of fancy, and largely leaves numbers on one side.”
“While macro-historical accounts convincingly argue for the centrality of the state to the incidence and intensity of civil war, there is a radical spatial unevenness to violence in civil wars that defies explanation at the national level. Villages only a few miles apart can have sharply contrasting experiences of conflict and in most civil wars large swathes of territory remain largely unaffected by violence. This unevenness presents a challenge to explanations of conflict that treat states or societies as the primary unit of analysis. […] A range of databases of disaggregated data on incidences of violence have recently been established and a lively publication programme has begun to explore sub-national patterns of distribution and diffusion of violence […] All of these developments testify to a growing recognition across the social sciences that spatial variation, territorial boundaries and bounding processes are properly located at the heart of any understanding of the causes of civil war. It suggests too that sub-national boundaries in their various forms – whether regional or local boundaries, lines of control established by rebels or no-go areas for state security forces – need to be analysed alongside national borders and in a geopolitical context. […] In both violent and non-violent contention local ‘safe territories’ of one kind or another are crucial to the exercise of power by challengers […] the generation of violence by insurgents is critically affected by logistics (e.g. roads), but also shelter (e.g. forests) […] Schutte and Weidmann (2011) offer a […] dynamic perspective on the diffusion of insurgent violence. Two types of diffusion are discussed; relocation diffusion occurs when the conflict zone is shifted to new locations, whereas escalation diffusion corresponds to an expansion of the conflict zone. They argue that the former should be a feature of conventional civil wars with clear frontlines, whereas the latter should be observed in irregular wars, an expectation that is borne out by the data.”
“Research on the motivation of armed militants in social movement scholarship emphasises the importance of affective ties, of friendship and kin networks and of emotion […] Sageman’s (2004, 2008) meticulous work on Salafist-inspired militants emphasises that mobilisation is a collective rather than individual process and highlights the importance of inter-personal ties, networks of friendship, family and neighbours. That said, it is clear that there is a variety of pathways to armed action on the part of individuals rather than one single dominant motivation”.
“While it is often difficult to conduct real experiments in the study of civil war, the micro study of violence has seen a strong adoption of quasi-experimental designs and in general, a more careful thinking about causal identification”.
“Condra and Shapiro (2012) present one of the first studies to examine the effects of civilian targeting in a micro-level study. […] they show that insurgent violence increases as a result of civilian casualties caused by counterinsurgent forces. Similarly, casualties inflicted by the insurgents have a dampening effect on insurgent effectiveness. […] The conventional wisdom in the civil war literature has it that indiscriminate violence by counterinsurgent forces plays into the hands of the insurgents. After being targeted collectively, the aggrieved population will support the insurgency even more, which should result in increased insurgent effectiveness. Lyall (2009) conducts a test of this relationship by examining the random shelling of villages from Russian bases in Chechnya. He matches shelled villages with those that have similar histories of violence, and examines the difference in insurgent violence between treatment and control villages after an artillery strike. The results clearly disprove conventional wisdom and show that shelling reduces subsequent insurgent violence. […] Other research in this area has looked at alternative counterinsurgency techniques, such as aerial bombings. In an analysis that uses micro-level data on airstrikes and insurgent violence, Kocher et al. (2011) show that, counter to Lyall’s (2009) findings, indiscriminate violence in the form of airstrikes against villages in the Vietnam war was counterproductive […] Data availability […] partly dictates what micro-level questions we can answer about civil war. […] not many conflicts have datasets on bombing sorties, such as the one used by Kocher et al. (2011) for the Vietnam war.”
Female Infidelity and Paternal Uncertainty – Evolutionary Perspectives on Male Anti-Cuckoldry Tactics
“A couple of chapters were really nice, but the authors repeat themselves *a lot* throughout the book and some chapters are really weak. I was probably at three stars after approximately 100 pages, but the book in my opinion lost steam after that. A couple of chapters are in my opinion really poor – basically they’re just a jumble of data-poor theorizing which is most likely just plain wrong. A main hypothesis presented in one of the chapters is frankly blatantly at odds with a lot of other evidence, some of which is even covered earlier in the same work, but the authors don’t even mention this in the coverage.
I don’t regret reading the book, but it’s not that great.”
Let’s say you have a book where Hrdy’s idea that it’s long been in the interest of human females to confuse paternity by various means, e.g. through extra-pair copulations, because such behaviour reduces the risk of infanticide (I’ve talked about these things before here on the blog, if you’re unfamiliar with this work and haven’t read my posts on the topics see for example this post) is covered, and where various other reasons why females may choose to engage in extra-pair copulations (e.g. ‘genetic benefits’) are also covered. Let’s say that in another, problematic, chapter of said book, a theory is proposed that ‘unfamiliar sperm’ (sperm from an individual the female has not had regular sex with before) leading to pregnancy is more likely to lead to preeclampsia in a female, a pregnancy complication which untreated will often lead to the abortion of the fetus. Let’s say the authors claim in that problematic chapter that the reason why females are more likely to develop preeclampsia in case of a pregnancy involving unfamiliar sperm is that such a pregnancy is likely to be a result of rape, and that the physiological mechanism leading to the pregnancy complication is an evolved strategy on part of the female, aimed at enabling her to exercise (post-copulatory) mate choice and reduce the negative fitness consequences of the rape. Let’s say the authors of the preeclampsia chapter/theory don’t talk at all about e.g. genetic benefits derived from extra-pair copulations which are not caused by rape but are engaged in willingly by the female because it’s in her reproductive interests to engage in them, and that the presumably common evolutionary female strategy of finding a semi-decent provider male as a long-term partner while also occasionally sleeping around with high-quality males (and low quality males – but only when not fertile (e.g. when pregnant…)) and have their children without the provider male knowing about it is not even mentioned. Assume the authors of the chapter seem to assume that getting a child by a male with unfamiliar sperm is always a bad idea.
Yeah, the above is what happened in this book, and it’s part of why it only gets two stars. These people are way too busy theorizing, and that specific theory is really poor – or at least the coverage of it was, as they don’t address the obvious issues which people reading the other chapters wouldn’t even have a hard time spotting. Kappeler et al. is a much better book, and it turns out that there was much less new stuff in this book than I’d thought – a lot of ‘the good stuff’ is also covered there.
It doesn’t help that many of the authors are systematically overestimating the extra-pair paternity rate by relying on samples/studies which are obviously deeply suspect due to selection bias. Not all of them goes overboard and claim the number is 10% or something like that, but many of them do – ‘the number is between 1-30%, with best estimates around 10%’ is a conclusion drawn in at least a couple of chapters. This is wrong. Only one contributor talking about these numbers come to the conclusion that the average number is likely to have been less than 5% in an evolutionary context (“Only very tentative conclusions about typical EPP [extra-pair paternity] rates throughout recent human history (e.g. in the past 50 000 years) can be drawn […] It seems reasonable to suggest that rates have typically been less than 10% and perhaps in most cases less than 5%. It also seems reasonable to suggest that they have probably also been variable across time and place, with some populations characterized by rates of 10% or higher.”). An idea worth mentioning in this context is that human behaviour can easily have been dramatically impacted by things which rarely happen now, because the reason why those things may be rare may well be that a lot of behaviour is aimed towards making sure it is rare and stays rare – this idea should be well known to people familiar with Hrdy’s thesis, and it also to me seems to apply to cuckoldry; cuckoldry may happen relatively infrequently, but perhaps the reason for this is that human males with female partners are really careful not to allow their partners to sleep around quite as much as their genetic code might like them to do. I mentioned in the coverage of Kappeler et al. that female sexual preferences change over the course of her menstrual cycle – they also talk about this in this book, but a related observation also made in the book is that males seem to be more vigilant and seem to intensify their level of mate guarding when their partner is ovulating. There’s probably a lot of stuff which goes on ‘behind the scenes’ which we humans are not aware of. Human behaviour is really complicated.
All these things said, there’s some really nice stuff in the book as well. The basic idea behind much of the coverage is that whereas females always know that their children are their children, males can never know for sure – and in a context where males may derive a fitness benefit from contributing to their offspring and a fitness loss by contributing to another male’s child, this uncertainty is highly relevant for how they might choose to behave in many contexts related to partnership dynamics. Many different aspects of the behaviour of human males is to some extent directed towards minimizing the risk of getting cuckolded and/or the risk of a partner in whom they have invested leaving him. They may choose to hide the female partner from competitors e.g. by monopolizing her time or by using violence to keep her from interacting with male competitors, they may signal to competitors that she is taken and/or perhaps that it may be costly to try to have sex with her (threats to other males, violence directed towards the competitor rather than the partner), they may try to isolate her socially by badmouthing her to potential competitors (e.g. male friends and acquaintances). On a more positive note males may also choose to do ‘nice things’ to keep the partner from leaving him, like ‘giving in to sexual requests’ and ‘performing sexual favors to keep her around’ (in at least one study, “men partnered to women who [were] more likely to be sexually unfaithful [were] also more likely to perform sexual inducements to retain their partners” – but before women reading this conclude that their incentives may look rather different from what they thought they did, it’s probably worth noting that the risk of abuse also goes up when the male thinks the partner might be unfaithful (see below)). If the first anti-cuckold approach, the mate-guarding strategy of trying to keep her from having sex with others, fails, then the male has additional options – one conceptualization in the book splits the strategy choices up into three groups; mate-guarding strategies, intra-vaginal strategies and post-partum strategies (in another chapter they distinguish among “preventative tactics, designed to minimize female infidelity; sperm-competition tactics, designed to minimize conception in the event of female infidelity; and differential paternal investment” – but the overall picture is reasonably similar). Intra-vaginal strategies relate to sperm competition and for example more specifically relate to e.g. the observation that a male may try to minimize the risk of being cuckolded after having been separated from the partner by having sex with the partner soon after they meet up again. A male may also increase the amount of sperm deposited during intercourse in such a context, compared to normal, and ‘sexual mechanics’ may also change as a function of cuckoldry risk (deeper thrusts and longer duration of sex if they’ve been separated for a while). There are five chapters on this stuff in the book, but I’ve limited coverage of this stuff because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting. Post-partum strategies naturally relate to strategies employed after the child has been born. Here the father may observe the child after it’s been born and then try to figure out if it looks like him/his family, and then adjust investment in the child based on how certain he is that he’s actually the father:
“There is growing evidence that human males are […] affected by […] evolutionary pressures to invest in offspring as a function of paternal certainty”, and “Burch and Gallup (2000) have shown that males spend less time with, invest fewer resources in, and are more likely to abuse ostensibly unrelated children than children they assume to be their genetic offspring. They also found that the less a male thinks a child (unrelated or genetic) looks like him, the worse he treats the child and the worse he views the relationship with that child.”
It’s worth mentioning that dividing the strategy set up into three, and exactly three, overall categories seem to me slightly artificial, also because some relevant behaviours may not fit very well into any of them; to take an example, “There is growing evidence that males who question their partner’s fidelity show an increase in spouse abuse during pregnancy, and the abuse is often directed toward the female’s abdomen” – this behavioural pattern relates to none of the three strategy categories mentioned, but also seems ‘relevant’. In general it’s important to observe that employment of a specific type of tactic does not necessarily preclude the employment of other tactics as well – as pointed out in the book:
“A male’s best strategy is to prevent female infidelity and, if he is unsuccessful in preventing female infidelity, he would benefit by attempting to prevent conception by a rival male. If he is unsuccessful in preventing conception by a rival male, he would benefit by adjusting paternal effort according to available paternity cues. The performance of one tactic does not necessitate the neglect of another tactic; indeed, a reproductively wise strategy would be to perform all three categories of anti-cuckoldry tactics”
There’s a lot of food for thought in the book. I’ve included some more detailed observations from the book below – in particular I’ve added some stuff closely related to what I believe people might normally term ‘red flags’ or similar in a relationship context. I’d say that enough research has been done on this kind of stuff for it to make a lot of sense for women to read some of it – in light of the evidence, there are certain types of male behaviours which should most definitely be considered strong warning signs that it may be a bad idea to engage with this individual. (I was annoyed that the book only dealt with male abuse, as there are quite a few female abusers as well, but I can’t really fault the authors for limiting coverage to male behaviours).
“Paternal investment in humans and many other species is facultatively expressed: it often benefits offspring but is not always necessary for their survival and thus the quantity and quality of human paternal investment often varies with proximate conditions […] The facultative expression of male parenting reflects the […] cost–benefit trade-offs as these relate to the current social and ecological contexts in which the male is situated. The degree of male investment (1) increases with increases in the likelihood that investment will be provided to his own offspring (i.e. paternity certainty), (2) increases when investment increases the survival and later reproductive prospects of offspring, and (3) decreases when there are opportunities to mate with multiple females. […] the conditional benefits of paternal investment in these species results in simultaneous cost–benefit trade-offs in females. Sometimes it is in the females’ best interest (e.g. when paired with an unhealthy male) to cuckold their partner and mate with higher-quality males […] As a result, women must balance the costs of reduced paternal investment or male retaliation against the benefits of cuckoldry; that is, having their children sired by a more fit man while having their social partner assist in the rearing of these children.”
“In several large but unrepresentative samples, 20–25% of adult women reported having had at least one extra-pair sexual relationship during their marriage […] Using a nationally representative sample in the USA, Wiederman (1997) found that 12% of adult women reported at least one extra-pair sexual relationship during their marriage, and about 2% reported such a relationship during the past 12 months; Treas and Giesen (2000) found similar percentages for another nationally representative sample. These may be underestimates, given that people are reluctant to admit to extra-pair relationships. In any case, the results indicate that some women develop simultaneous and multiple opposite-sex relationships, many of which become sexual and are unknown to their social partner […] The dynamics of these extra-pair relationships are likely to involve a mix of implicit (i.e. unconscious) and explicit (i.e. conscious) psychological processes (e.g. attention to symmetric facial features) and social strategies. […] the finding that attraction to extra-pair partners is influenced by hormonal fluctuations points to the importance of implicit mechanisms. […] The emerging picture is one in which women appear to have an evolved sensitivity to the proximate cues of men’s fitness, a sensitivity that largely operates automatically and implicitly and peaks around the time women ovulate. The implicit operation of these mechanisms enables women to assess the fitness of potential extra-pair partners without a full awareness that they are doing so. In this way, women are psychologically and socially attentive to the relationship with their primary partner and most of the time have no explicit motive to cuckold this partner. If their social partners monitor for indications of attraction to extra-pair men, which they often do […], then these cues are only emitted during a short time frame. Moreover, given that attraction to a potential extra-pair partner is influenced by hormonal mechanisms, often combined with some level of pre-existing and non-sexual emotional intimacy with the extra-pair male […], many of these women may have no intention of an extra-pair sexual relationship before it is initiated. Under these conditions, the dynamics of cuckoldry may involve some level of self deception on women’s part, a mechanism that facilitates their ability to keep the extra-pair relationship hidden from their social partners. […] As with women, men’s anti-cuckoldry biases almost certainly involve a mix of implicit processes and explicit behavioral strategies that can be directed toward their mates, toward potential rivals, and toward the evaluation of the likely paternity of children born to their partners”
“Males have evolved psychological adaptations that produce mate guarding and jealousy […] to reduce or to prevent a mate from being inseminated by another male. Recent evidence suggests that males maximize the utility of their mateguarding strategies by implementing them at ovulation, a key reproductive time in a female’s menstrual cycle […]. Further, jealousy appears to fluctuate with a man’s mate value and, hence, risk of cuckoldry. Brown and Moore (2003), for example, found that males who were less symmetrical were significantly more jealous. These and other data suggest that jealousy has evolved as a means by which males can attempt to deter extra-pair copulations […] When triggered, jealousy often results in a variety of behavioral responses, including male-on-female aggression […], divorce […], the monitoring and attempted control of the social and sexual behavior of their partners […], enhancement of their attractiveness as a mate […], and the monitoring of and aggression toward actual or perceived sexual rivals […]. In total, these behaviors encompass tactics that function to ensure, through coercion or enticement, that their reproductive investment and that of their mate is directed toward the man’s biological children. […] One of the more common behavioral responses to relationship jealousy is mate guarding. For men this involves reducing their partner’s opportunity to mate with other men.”
“Cuckoldry is a reproductive cost inflicted on a man by a woman’s sexual infidelity or temporary defection from her regular long-term relationship. Ancestral men also would have incurred reproductive costs by a long-term partner’s permanent defection from the relationship. These costs include loss of the time, effort, and resources the man has spent attracting his partner, the potential misdirection of his resources to a rival’s offspring, and the loss of his mate’s investment in offspring he may have had with her in the future […] Expressions of male sexual jealousy historically may have been functional in deterring rivals from mate poaching […] and deterring a mate from a sexual infidelity or outright departure from the relationship […] Buss (1988) categorized the behavioral output of jealousy into different ‘‘mate-retention’’ tactics, ranging from vigilance over a partner’s whereabouts to violence against rivals […] Performance of these tactics is assessed by the Mate Retention Inventory (MRI[)] […] Buss’s taxonomy (1988) partitioned the tactics into two general categories: intersexual manipulations and intrasexual manipulations. Intersexual manipulations include behaviors directed toward one’s partner, and intrasexual manipulations include behaviors directed toward same-sex rivals. Intersexual manipulations include direct guarding, negative inducements, and positive inducements. Intrasexual manipulations include public signals of possession. […] Unfortunately, little is known about which specific acts and tactics of men’s mate-retention efforts are linked with violence. The primary exception is the study by Wilson, Johnson, and Daly (1995), which identified several predictors of partner violence – notably, verbal derogation of the mate and attempts at sequestration such as limiting access to family, friends, and income.”
“Tactics within the direct guarding category of the MRI include vigilance, concealment of mate, and monopolization of time. An exemplary act for each tactic is, respectively, ‘‘He dropped by unexpectedly to see what she was doing,’’ ‘‘He refused to introduce her to his same-sex friends,’’ and ‘‘He monopolized her time at the social gathering.’’ Each of these tactics implicates what Wilson and Daly (1992) term ‘‘male sexual proprietariness,’’ which refers to the sense of entitlement men sometimes feel that they have over their partners […] Wilson et al. (1995) demonstrated that violence against women is linked closely to their partners’ autonomy-limiting behaviors. Women who affirmed items such as ‘‘He is jealous and doesn’t want you to talk to other men,’’ were more than twice as likely to have experienced serious violence by their partners.” [What was the base rate? I find myself asking. But it’s still relevant knowledge.] […] Not all mate-retention tactics are expected to predict positively violence toward partners. Some of these tactics include behaviors that are not in conflict with a romantic partner’s interests and, indeed, may be encouraged and welcomed by a partner […] Holding his partner’s hand in public, for example, may signal to a woman her partner’s commitment and devotion to her. […] Tactics within the public signals of possession category include verbal possession signals (e.g. ‘‘He mentioned to other males that she was taken’’), physical possession signals (e.g. ‘‘He held her hand when other guys were around’’), and possessive ornamentation (e.g. ‘‘He hung up a picture of her so others would know she was taken’’).”
“The current studies examined how mate-retention tactics are related to violence in romantic relationships, using the reports of independent samples of several hundred men and women in committed, romantic relationships […], and using the reports of 107 married men and women […] With few exceptions, we found the same pattern of results using three independent samples. Moreover, these samples were not just independent, but provided different perspectives (the male perpetrator’s, the female victim’s, and a combination of the two) on the same behaviors – men’s mate-retention behaviors and men’s violence against their partners. We identified overlap between the best predictors of violence across the studies. For example, men’s use of emotional manipulation, monopolization of time, and punish mate’s infidelity threat are among the best predictors of female-directed violence, according to independent reports provided by men and women, and according to reports provided by husbands and their wives. The three perspectives also converged on which tactics are the weakest predictors of relationship violence. For example, love and care and resource display are among the weakest predictors of female-directed violence. […] The tactic of emotional manipulation was the highest-ranking predictor of violence in romantic relationships in study 1, and the second highest-ranking predictor in studies 2 and 3. The items that comprise the emotional manipulation tactic include, ‘‘He told her he would ‘die’ if she ever left,’’ and ‘‘He pleaded that he could not live without her.’’ Such acts seem far removed from those that might presage violence. […] Monopolization of time also ranked as a strong predictor of violence across the three studies. Example acts included in this tactic are ‘‘He spent all his free time with her so that she could not meet anyone else’’ and ‘‘He would not let her go out without him.’’ […] The acts ‘‘Dropped by unexpectedly to see what my partner was doing’’ and ‘‘Called to make sure my partner was where she said she would be’’ are the third and fifth highest-ranking predictors of violence, respectively. These acts are included in the tactic of vigilance, which is the highest-ranking tactic-level predictor of violence in study 3. Given that (1) two of the top five actlevel predictors of violence are acts of vigilance, (2) the numerically best tactic-level predictor of violence is vigilance, and (3) seven of the nine acts included within the vigilance tactic are correlated significantly with violence […], a man’s vigilance over his partner’s whereabouts is likely to be a key signal of his partner-directed violence. […] Wilson et al. (1995) found that 40% of women who affirmed the statement ‘‘He insists on knowing who you are with and where you are at all times’’ reported experiencing serious violence at the hands of their husbands.”
“Relative to women’s reports of their partners’ behavior, men self-reported more frequent use of intersexual negative inducements, positive inducements, and controlling behavior. Although not anticipated, the sex difference in reported frequency of controlling behaviors is not surprising upon examination of the acts included in the CBI [Controlling Behavior Index]. More than half of the acts do not require the woman’s physical presence or knowledge, for example ‘‘Deliberately keep her short of money’’ and ‘‘Check her movements.’’ In addition, such acts might be more effective if the woman is not aware of their occurrence. […] Increased effort devoted to mate retention is predicted to occur when the adaptive problems it was designed to solve are most likely to be encountered – when a mate is particularly desirable, when there exist mate poachers, when there is a mate-value discrepancy, and when the partner displays cues to infidelity or defection”
“Although sometimes referred to as marital rape, spouse rape, or wife rape,we use the term forced in-pair copulation (FIPC) to refer to the forceful act of sexual intercourse by a man against his partner’s will. […] FIPC is not performed randomly […] FIPC reliably occurs immediately after extra-pair copulations, intrusions by rival males, and female absence in many species of waterfowl […] and other avian species […] FIPC in humans often follow[s] accusations of female infidelity”
Okay, here’s the short version: This book is awesome – I gave it five stars and added it to my list of favourites on goodreads.
It’s the second primatology text I read this year – the first one was Aureli et al.; my coverage of that book can be found here, here and here. I’ve also recently read a few other texts as well which have touched upon arguably semi-related themes; books such as Herrera et al., Gurney and Nisbet, Whitmore and Whitmore, Okasha, Miller, and Bobbi Low. Some of the stuff covered in Holmes et al. turned out to be relevant as well. I mention these books because this book is aimed at graduates in the field (“Sexual Selection in Primates is aimed at graduates and researchers in primatology, animal behaviour, evolutionary biology and comparative psychology“), and although my background is different I have as indicated read some stuff about these kinds of things before – if you know nothing about this stuff, it may be a bit more work for you to read the book than it was for me. I still think you should read it though, as this is the sort of book everybody should read; if they did, people’s opinions about extra-marital sex might change, their understanding of the behavioural strategies people employ when they go about being unfaithful might increase, single moms would find it easier to understand why their dating value is lower than that of their competitors without children, and new dimensions of friendship dynamics – both those involving same-sex individuals and those involving individuals of both sexes – might enter people’s mental model and provide additional angles which might be used by them to help explain why they, or other people, behave the way they do. To take a few examples.
Most humans are probably aware that many males in primate species quite closely related to us habitually engage in activities like baby-killing or rape, and that they do this because such behavioural strategies lead to them being more successful in the fitness context. However they may not be aware that females of those species have implemented behavioural strategies in order to counteract these behaviours; for example females may furtively sleep around with different males in order to confuse the males about who’s the real father of their offspring (you don’t want to kill your own baby), or they may band up with other females, and/or perhaps a strong male, in order to obtain protection from the potential rapists. I mention this in part because a related observation is that it should be clear from observing humans in their natural habitat that most human males are not baby-killers or rapists, and such an observation might easily lead people who have some passing familiarity with the field to think that a lot of the stuff included in a book like this one is irrelevant to human behaviour; a single mom is unlikely to hook up with a guy who kills her infant, so this kind of stuff is probably irrelevant to humans – we are different. I think this is the wrong conclusion to draw. What’s particularly important to note in this context is that counterstrategies are reasonably effective in many primate species, meaning for example that although infanticide does take place in wild primate species, it doesn’t happen that often; we’ve in some respects come a bit further than other species in terms of limiting such behaviours, but in more than a few areas of social behaviour humans actually seem to act in a rather similar manner to those baby-killing rapists and their victims. It’s also really important to observe that sexual conflict is but one of several types of conflicts which organisms such as mammals face, and that the dynamics of such conflicts and aspects like how they are resolved have many cross-species similarities – see Aureli et al. for an overview. It’s difficult and expensive to observe primates in the wild, but when you do it it’s not actually that hard to spot many precursors of- or animal equivalents of various behaviours that humans engage in as well. Some animals are more like us than people like to think, and the common idea that humans are really special and unique on account of our large brains may to some extent be the result of a lack of knowledge about how animals actually behave. Yep, we are different, but perhaps not quite as different as people like to think. Some of the behaviours we like to think of as somehow ‘irreducible’ probably aren’t.
Observations included in a book like this one may well change how you think about many things humans do, at least a little. Humans who are not sexually active have the same evolutionary past as those that are, which means that their behaviours are likely to be and have been shaped by similar mechanisms – an important point being that if even someone like me, who at the moment consider it a likely outcome that I’ll never have sex during my lifetime, is capable of finding stuff covered in a book such as this one to be relevant and useful, there are probably very few people who wouldn’t find some of the stuff in there relevant and useful to some extent. Modern humans face different decision variables and constraints than did our ancestors, but the brains we’re walking around with are to a significant extent best thought of as the brains of our ancestors – they really haven’t changed that much in, say, the last 100.000 years, and some parts of the ‘code’ we walk around with are literally millions of years old. You need to remember to account for stuff like birth control, ‘culture’ and institutions when you’re dealing with human sexual behaviours today, but a lot of other stuff should be included as well, and books like this one will give you another piece of the puzzle. An important piece, I think.
Although there’s a limited amount of mathematics in this book (mostly limited to an infanticide model in chapter 8), as you can imagine given the target group the book is really quite dense. There’s way too much good stuff in this book for me to cover all of it here, and I don’t know at this point how detailed my coverage of the book will end up being. A lot of details will be left out, regardless of how many posts I decide to give this book – more than a few chapters are of such high quality that I could easily devote an entire post to each of them. If the stuff I include in my posts sparks your interest, you’ll probably want to read the rest of the book as well.
“In this review I have emphasised five points that modern students of sexual selection ought to keep in mind. First, the list of mechanisms of sexual selection is longer than just the two most famous examples of male-male combat and female choice. Male mate choice and female-female competition are two frequently noted possibilities. Other between-sex social interactions that can result in sexual selection include male coercion of females […] and female resistance to male coercion or manipulation […] sexual selection among females should be as important as male sexual selection to dynamical interactions between the sexes. Sexual selection among females will favour resistance to male attempts to manipulate and control them […] Second, even when a mechanism of intersexual selection depends on interactions between members of opposite sexes, the important thing for selection is the variance in reproductive success among members of one sex. Think about female mate choice for a moment. Whenever choosers discriminate, mate choice may cause variation among the chosen in mating and reproductive success […] Thus, mate choice is a mechanism of sexual selection because it theoretically results in variance among individuals of the chosen sex in mating success and perhaps other components of fitness. […] Third, sexual selection can result in individual tradeoffs among the components of fitness […] Fourth, for a trait to be under selection, there must be variation in the trait. For sexual selection to operate the trait variation must be among individuals of the same sex. […] To argue that an opportunity for sexual selection exists, variation among same-sex individuals in reproductive success must exist. Fifth, between-sex variances in reproductive success alone are […] an insufficient basis for the conclusion that sexual selection operates […], as within-sex variances may arise because of random, non-heritable factors”
“In summary, sex roles fixed by past selection from anisogamy or from parental investment patterns so that females are choosy and males indiscriminate are currently questionable for many species. The factors that determine whether individuals are choosy or indiscriminate seem relatively under-investigated.” (One factor which does seem to be important is the encounter frequency with potentially mating opposite-sex individuals; this variable (how often do you meet a potential partner?) has been shown to affect the sexual behaviours of individuals in species as diverse as fruit flies, fish and butterflies).
“Because most primates live in stable, long-lasting social groups, pressures for direct sexually selected communication cues may be less than in species with ephemeral mating groups or frequent pairings. Primates are likely to accumulate information about competitors and mates from many sources over a longer time frame. […] Although there do appear to be some communication signals that may be sexually selected, it may be best to consider these signals as biasing factors rather than the determinants of mate choice. For primates, human and non-human, as well as for Japanese quails, gerbils, rats and blue guramis, there is more to successful reproduction than simply responding to a sexually selected cue. Although I might be initially attracted to a woman with the ‘correct’ breast-to-waist-to-hip ratios, a symmetric face and all of the other hypothesised sexually selected cues, I will quickly learn if she is intelligent or not, if she is emotionally stable, and many other things that should be more important in my reproductive decisions than mere appearance. It is important to keep this in mind in any discussion of sexual selection. […] The strongest evidence, so far, for intersexual selection of traits is observed in female primates, suggesting that male mate choice and female competition may be as important as male competition and female mate choice. […] The data suggest that intersexual selection is as strong if not stronger on female primates than on males.” [As should be very clear at this point, male primates do have standards, despite what the third cartoon at the beginning of this post would have you believe…]
“One form of polyandry that has received much attention is extra-pair copulation (EPC) – sex that a female with a social mate has with a male who is not the social mate. […] Because an evolved adaption is a product of past direct selection for a function, the question of whether EPC by women is currently adaptive or currently advances women’s reproductive success (RS) is a distinct one. An evolved adaption may be currently non-adaptive and even maladaptive because the current ecological setting in which it occurs is different from the evolutionary historical setting that was the selection favouring it […] Female EPC is not a rare occurence in humans. […] Female EPC may be a relatively common occurence now. But was it sufficiently common in small ancestral populations of humans or pre-hominid primates to be an effective selective force of evolution? Evidence suggests yes, and perhaps the best evidence comes from design features of men rather than women. Men, but not women, can be duped about parentage as a result of EPC, leading to the unknowing investment in another man’s offspring. Men show a rich diversity of mate guarding and anti-cuckoldry tactics ranging from sexual jealousy, vigilance, monopolising a mate’s time, pampering a mate, threatening a mate with harm if she shows interest in other men, and adjusting ejaculate size to defend against the mate’s insemination by a competitor […] Some mate guarding tactics appear to be conditional, such that men guard mates of high fertility status (young or not pregnant) more intensely than ones of low-fertility status (older or pregnant) […] and hence appear not to be caused by general male-male competitive strivings but rather concern for fidelity of a primary social mate […] We […] asked women in [a] study to report their primary mate’s mate-retention tactics. Our questionnaire measures two major dimensions, ‘proprietariness’ and ‘attentiveness’. Women reported their partners to be higher on both when fertile [i.e., mid-cycle].”
“Women’s preferences shift across the [menstrual] cycle in a number of ways. They particularly prefer the scent and faces of more symmetrical men when fertile. The face they find most attractive when fertile is more masculine than the face they most prefer when not fertile. They prefer more assertive, intrasexually competitive displays when fertile than when not. [An example: “The behaviours of men being interviewed by women for a lunch date were coded for a host of verbal and non-verbal qualities [by Gangestad et al.]. Through principal components analysis of these codes, two major dimensions along which men’s performance varied were identified; ‘social presence’, marked by a man’s composure, his direct eye contact and lack of downward gaze, as well as a lack of self-deprecation, and emphasis that he’s a ‘nice guy’; and ‘direct intrasexual competitiveness’, marked by a man’s explicit derogation of his competitor and statements to the effect that he is the better choice, as well as not being obviously agreeable.”] Furthermore, evidence indicates that their preferences when evaluating men as sex partners (i.e. their sexiness) is particularly affected; evidence shows that their evaluations of men as long-term partners shift little, if at all. […] symmetrical men appear to invest less time in and are less faithful to their primary relationship partners […] [The] pattern of findings suggests that it is not simply the case that all traits preferred by females are particularly preferred mid-cycle; that fertility status simply enhances existing preferences. Rather, it appears that only specific preferences are enhanced – perhaps those for features that ancestrally were indicators of genetic benefits. Preferences for features particularly important in long-term investing mates may actually be more prominent outside the fertile period.”
“STDs typically have been viewed as a curious group of parasites rather than established entities with important selective effects on their hosts […]. In recent decades, this view has changed, primarily through our increased understanding of HIV […] [There are] at least three major costs of STDs: (1) A large proportion of STDs increase the risk of sterility in males and females. (2) STDs commonly exhibit vertical transmission, with severe consequences for offspring health [see also this – Holmes et al. covers this stuff in some detail and actually the authors refer to an older version of that book in this context]. (3) Relative to infectious disease transmitted by non-sexual contact, STDs commonly exhibit long infectious periods with low host recovery, failure to clear infectious organisms following recovery, or limited immunity to reinfection. […] Many negative consequences of STD infection probably provide benefits to the parasites themselves, increasing the likelihood of invasion, transmission and persistence […] In mammals, for example, host infertility is likely to result in repeated cycling by females and may consequently increase their number of sexual contacts. [Mind blown! I’d never even thought about this.] Primates offer an important opportunity to test this hypothesis, because the frequency of infertile females within wild groups may exceed 10 per cent […]. Similarly, STDs that increase host mortality or possess short infectious periods are less likely to survive until the next breeding season, when contact is established with new, uninfected hosts […] Thus, in addition to long infectious periods, STDs tend to produce less disease-induced mortality relative to other infectious diseases”
“Because sexual reproduction offers an important mechanism for disease spread and may even be influenced by infection status, it is pertinent to ask whether animals can identify infected individuals and avoid mating with them. Symptoms such as visible lesions, sores, discharge around the genitalia or olfactory cues may provide evidence of infection. […] many human STDs are […] characterized by limited symptoms or, in the case of viruses, asymptomatic shedding […] reproductive success of an STD is correlated with partner exchange and successful matings of infected hosts. Therefore, virulent parasites that produce outward signs of infection will experience decreased transmission because they provide conspicuous cues for choosy members of the opposite sex to avoid infected mates. […] A parasite faces two main barriers, or defences, imposed by the host: behavioural counter-strategies to avoid exposure, and physical or immune defences […]. The order of events can vary, but behavioural mechanisms commonly are viewed as the first line of defence. An important point we wish to emphasise is that host behaviour to avoid exposure prior to mating is likely to have other reproductive costs, and these costs may outweigh their benefits. […] male and female behaviour indicates that STD risk is of secondary importance relative to other selective pressures operating on mating success. Females mate polyandrously to reduce infanticide risk […] and, for similar reasons, they prefer novel males, though risking infection with STDs acquired from other social groups. Males prefer females of intermediate age that have already produced offspring, as these females have high reproductive value […]. Both sets of decisions by males and females are expected to increase exposure to STDs by increasing the number of partners and mating events.”
The last part had some interesting stuff, but I think I liked some of the chapters in the middle best. There are obvious parallels to be drawn between the coverage in a few of the last chapters and some of the work of Boyd and Richerson, though these guys’ approach and methodology is quite different.
I’ve included some stuff from the last part of the book below. Although I haven’t exactly read the works of a lot of moral philosophers (except perhaps random quotes of theirs – I’ve probably read quite a few of those over the years), I do think that some of the ideas and observations included in this part of the book are ideas and observations which many of them might benefit (/have benefited) from knowing (/more) about.
“The social interactions between two animals depend not only on their individual characteristics (e.g., age, sex, dominance rank, temperament) but also on the history of interactions between them, provided that they possess the capacity for individual recognition, have sufficient memory to remember the outcome of social interactions, and repeatedly meet each other. The two animals can thus be said to have developed a social relationship. This relationship is not directly visible. Observers decide it exists because the history of previous interactions allows them to predict the outcome of subsequent interactions between the same animals […]. Of course, it also allows the animals to predict the actions and responses of the partner with reasonable accuracy. This makes social intercourse much more efficient, obviating the need for thorough reassessment of the partner’s strength and possible other qualities every time they come close, which is why the establishment of relationships is adaptive for the participants. […] Social behavior is about conflict and cooperation, and relationships characterized by only one of these two probably do not exist. Even the most collaborative relationships tend to contain an element of competition — for instance, because collaborators need to decide on how to divide the benefits of their cooperative effort […] social relationships always contain elements of both cooperation and competition.”
“The partners in an established relationship need to communicate about their relative balance of power (i.e., physical strength and social influence) and about the exchange rate of services. The need for some form of communication is clear in even the simplest relationship. For example, individuals can alternate grooming each other and thus provide benefits in terms of hygiene […], tension reduction […], and endorphin release […] By varying the duration and frequency of their own grooming bouts, the partners can express their perceived relative power in the relationship and, through refusals of grooming invitations or variations in length, negotiate the actual power balance. Communication about the relationship is all the more important because the partners’ values change all the time. Individual qualities, such as strength or experience, change over time, as do their needs for services. External factors—for instance, group composition—may change the value of a partner because they affect the number of other group members who can offer the same service [these effects are termed ‘market effects’ in the literature] […] Changing assessments can be communicated by ceasing to support or share, by taking larger shares than before, or even by punishing partners after they failed to reciprocate […] Communication before engaging in the interaction […] is critical when interactions involve high risks, especially when the partners do not have reliable relationships. Agonistic support between males is a prime example because it involves high risks and because male alliances are fickle.”
“Given the dynamic nature of relationships, it is critical for one or both partners to establish whether the conflict signifies a growing mismatch in the assessments of each other’s value or whether it is a mere hiccup in an otherwise unchanged relationship. We believe this is why reconciliation evolved […] Reconciliation can be viewed as communication about the value of the relationship: it shows how much each partner is interested in the relationship and thereby is willing to repair it after the disturbance due to the conflict. According to this view, reconciliation is not only an effective way to end the conflict but is also a primary tool for relationship management […] The most important generalization to emerge from two decades of work on reconciliation (i.e., post-conflict friendly reunion between opponents) in primates is that individuals that reconcile are likely to have a strong social bond (de Waal, Chapter 2; Cords & Aureli, Chapter 9).”
“In primates, the benefits [of relationships] include selective tolerance around resources […], cooperative hunting […], food sharing […], services for mating privileges […], agonistic support, and protection against harassment. The last two are probably the most widespread and critical benefits related to relationship-dependent cooperation in primates. […] A coalition takes place when individuals support one another in an agonistic conflict […] An alliance is a type of relationship in which the two partners repeatedly form coalitions. Thus, coalitions are interactions that can be formed on a case-by-case basis, whereas alliances are enduring cooperative relationships […] The basic rule for coalitions and alliances is simple: they should be formed when they improve access to limiting resources for both partners […] The limiting resources are usually different for the two sexes because the fitness of males and females is limited by very different factors […] Male mammals […] usually contribute little to the development of the young. […] females usually compete for food or shelter, whereas males compete for mating opportunities (Emlen & Oring 1977).”
“Some of the most significant threats faced by female primates are social ones, in particular, sexual harassment and infanticide by males. Protective bonds between females, and especially those between males and females, may serve to reduce these social threats […] Species with lactational amenorrhea are vulnerable to infanticide by males unlikely to have fathered the infant, because this will speed up the female’s next conception. Many primates have lactational amenorrhea; male infanticide is reported for a remarkably high proportion of primate species […]. Yet male infanticide is rare in most of the species in which it occurs. Perhaps this is because of effective social counterstrategies […] Associations and social relationships can often be seen as strategies to reduce the negative impact of some challenge. Paradoxically, the selective forces that produced particular social behavior are often hard to discern because the behavior it has produced is effective in eliminating the fitness impact of these ultimate causes. Hence, their action is rarely apparent.”
“Among primate males, strong bonds to maintain alliances are expected to serve to improve mating access to females, and indeed they do. However, they are less common and shorter-lived than those among females […]. In various primate species, only a single male stays in a group of females, preventing the establishment of male bonds. But even in the all-male bands commonly found in these species […] or in many species with multimale groups, male bonds are not pervasive. The reasons for this are largely speculative at this stage. […] Most examples of male-female alliances are from species with limited sexual dimorphism, in which males and females can potentially provide mutual agonistic support.”
“When a group is faced with external threats, relationships within the group and with allies increase in importance. Group pressure is exerted on disputants to reconcile conflicts that threaten valued defensive alliances or solidarity. […] in-group/out-group distinctions are also a very salient dimension of nonhuman primate interactions.”
“we make two fundamental assertions regarding the evolution of morality: (1) there are specific types of behavior demonstrated by both human and nonhuman primates that hint at a shared evolutionary background to morality; and (2) there are theoretical and actual connections between morality and conflict resolution in both nonhuman primates and human development. […] the transition from nonmoral or premoral to moral is more gradual than commonly assumed. No magic point appears in either evolutionary history or human development at which morality suddenly comes into existence. In both early childhood and in animals closely related to us, we can recognize behaviors (and, in the case of children, judgments) that are essential building blocks of the morality of the human adult. […] The obvious common ground between current evolutionary and developmental approaches is that, instead of looking at human morality as coming from the outside — imposed by adults on the passive child, or imposed by culture on a fundamentally nasty human nature — it is generated from the inside. What we mean by “inside” is not that things happen in isolation from outside influences: evolution operates on the basis of ecological pressures, which come from the outside, and development takes place in constant interplay with the outside world. What we mean instead is that the decision making and emotions underlying moral judgments are generated within the individual rather than being simply imposed by society. They are a product of evolution, an integrated part of the human genetic makeup, that makes the child construct a moral perspective through interactions with other members of its species. […] Much research has shown that children acquire morality through a social-cognitive process; children make connections between acts and consequences. Through a gradual process, children develop concepts of justice, fairness, and equality, and they apply these concepts to concrete everyday situations (Killen & Hart 1995).”
“From our perspective, we assert that emotions such as empathy and sympathy provide an experiential basis by which children construct moral judgments. Emotional reactions from others, such as distress or crying, provide experiential information that children use to judge whether an act is right or wrong […] when a child hits another child, a crying response provides emotional information about the nature of the act, and this information enables the child, in part, to determine whether and why the transgression is wrong. Therefore, recognizing signs of distress in another person may be a basic requirement of the moral judgment process. The fact that responses to distress in another have been documented both in infancy and in the nonhuman primate literature provides initial support for the idea that these types of moral-like experiences are common to children and nonhuman primates. As an illustration, de Waal (1996) documents reactions to distressed individuals and the tendency to share food with others. Generally, it seems that our closest relatives, the great apes, go further in this regard than more distantly related primates, such as the monkeys. For example, “consolation” has thus far been demonstrated only in chimpanzees despite systematic attempts to find it in monkeys. Consolation is defined as friendly or reassuring contact provided by a bystander to a recipient of aggression […]. In the chimpanzee, this kind of interaction typically consists of putting an arm around the victim or patting him or her gently on the back or shoulder. Because of the contrast between monkeys and apes in this regard, de Waal & Aureli (1996) have recently speculated that consolation may require empathy. Since higher forms of empathy and sympathy require the ability to take someone else’s perspective, the difference may result from Hominoids (i.e., humans and apes) possessing this ability but not monkeys.”
“No biologist and few social scientists would deny that our species has natural aggressive potentials, but we possess many other natural tendencies as well, some of which serve to keep aggression in check. Thus, to call us naturally peaceful (which is, after all, a state observed far more often than war and strife) would be at least as justified as calling us naturally aggressive.”
“the “ought” question, which has occupied moral philosophers over the ages, may reach all the way back to rather mundane mechanisms of how to get along and when to repair relationships.”
I took a short break from this book, but now I’ve started reading it again and I’ll probably finish it later today. Here’s the first post I wrote about the book. This is not going to be the last post about the book and I still have some chapters to go, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment on it just yet; but I must say that I find the book very interesting, and based on the coverage so far I’d probably give it four stars. It’s a bit too speculative at times, but aside from that it’s really good. People with a ‘science approach’ to life and other stuff may say that ‘we’re just apes’ (or ‘monkeys’, if they’re confused about the terminology), but precisely what this actually implies may even so still not be completely clear to them, because most people probably don’t know a great deal about how, say, chimpanzees behave and live their lives. This book will enlighten you about some of the ways in which common human behavioural patterns have close analogues in other species, and some of the patterns will probably surprise you (…and fascinate you, if you’re like me). We really are quite a bit like those other guys, in ways many of us probably have never even thought about. The book has certainly tempted me to explore the field of ethology in more detail later on.
Before moving on to the main coverage I feel the need to once again (I did this in my first post about the book as well) point out that this book is not in any way a book about strategies for how to make your aggressive colleague back off, or something like that. Quite a few of the chapters of this book are about conflict resolution/conflict management behaviours and strategies seen applied by primates in nature, and none of them are about behavioural strategies applied in the office. You’ll probably gain some valuable insights as to how humans may behave in a conflict setting as well from the book, but how many such insights you’ll take away from the book will surely depend on how confident you feel about extrapolating and drawing inferences from studies conducted on members of species related to us. There’s stuff on humans as well – there was indeed enough of that kind of stuff in the first part of the book for me to have no problem limiting my coverage in the first post about the book to the results of studies on humans alone – but the focus is decidedly different from the focus I imagine people are forced to apply when participating e.g. in anger management classes; this book is a different kettle of fish, this is mainly about understanding why animals behave the way they do, and specifically it is about understanding how they deal with conflict.
I have added some stuff from the book below. There’s a lot of good stuff in this book.
“Displacement activities are behavior patterns (often body care activities) exhibited by an animal that are “apparently irrelevant” to its ongoing activity […] and are thought to occur in situations of motivational conflict. […] displacement activities may be used as a behavioral measure of anxiety […] [Reviewing our results] [t]wo patterns emerge […] First, all group-living species show increased post-conflict affiliation between former opponents; second, all species for which information is available show increased post-conflict displacement activities. Out of four non-primate species studied thus far—the bottlenose dolphin, spotted hyena, domestic goat, and domestic cat—only the last did not show any evidence of post-conflict affiliation between former opponents. Dolphins, hyenas, and goats are all group-living animals that form stable social groups or fission/fusion societies […]. The domestic cat, on the contrary, is an opportunistic species that may aggregate at rich food sources (as seems to be the case for urban stray cats) but probably cannot be considered as a truly social species […]. Accordingly, cats lack the mechanisms of conflict regulation typical of social species […]. The observation of post-conflict affiliation in species as phylogenetically distant as primates, dolphins, hyenas, and goats implies that conflict-regulation mechanisms must have evolved independently several times in association with the rise of social life. Whether group life and the consequent inevitable frictions are invariably linked to the evolution of conflict-regulation mechanisms or whether only a fraction of group-living species have evolved post-conflict conciliatory behaviors is a question that awaits further theoretical […] and empirical studies. […] The observation of conciliatory behaviors in species that differ widely in their cognitive capacities suggests that reconciliation does not require special abilities such as introspection and self-awareness but that good memory and individual recognition probably suffice (see de Waal & Yoshihara 1983). Obviously, stating that high cognitive abilities are not necessary does not imply that they cannot actually be involved in the process of reconciliation, at least in a few species. In other words, it is unlikely that the cognitive mechanisms underlying reconciliation are entirely the same in goats and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Similar functions do not imply similar mechanisms. […] All species for which information is available (several primates, goats, and cats) show an increase in the frequency of displacement activities after a conflict. Furthermore, in both goats and primates reconciliation caused a faster return of displacement activities to their baseline frequency. These results suggest that the post-conflict increase in displacement activities may be a general phenomenon and that one of the functions of post-conflict friendly reunions may be a reduction in the anxiety and arousal experienced by the recipient of aggression (see Aureli & Smucny, Chapter 10). […] cognitive or ecological constraints may […] limit the complexities of the social life of non-primates, but we are certainly very far from having identified such limits.”
“Across the five cultures girls and boys did not differ significantly in their peacemaking tendency […]. However, girls and boys sometimes differed in the acts and gestures they used to make peace. […] Acting silly to make others laugh may be a male strategy […] girls may be especially responsive to clowning by boys. Research in adults has shown that women laugh and smile more often when they are observers rather than actors, especially when the speaker is male (Provine 1993). […] Children classified as acquaintances interact differently than those classified as friends. […] acquaintances engaged in more intense conflicts and were less likely to use conciliatory resolution strategies than friends. The distinction between friends and acquaintances is thus an important one. […] Perhaps the simplest way of explaining [the] results is to suggest that both interactions and relationships matter to young children and that young children’s peacemaking reflects children’s motivation to repair damage to both. Friends may be motivated to protect their existing relationship from damage caused by conflict, whereas nonfriends may be motivated to restore peaceful interaction simply because playing together is more fun than playing alone. […] Our studies [on children] showed that reunions between former opponents generally occurred within the first two minutes after the end of the conflict. This timing is remarkably similar to the timing of post-conflict peacemaking in most nonhuman primate species”
“Tantrums are a common, if not ubiquitous, phenomenon of early childhood. Tantrums also occur in infant and juvenile nonhuman primates […]. Trivers (1985) proposes that tantrums may be a solution to a basic intergenerational conflict: the young benefit by maintaining parental nurturance as long as possible while parents’ inclusive fitness is eventually better served in other ways. When a juvenile primate has a tantrum following maternal rejection (e.g., while being weaned), its mother usually accepts it […]. Historically, the “terrible twos” are the age of weaning in Western culture, as it remains in other cultures to this day. A disposition to have tantrums that develop at an age when weaning occurred over most of human history might well reflect an evolutionary strategy to retain parental attention. […] the majority of post-tantrum reconciliations are initiated by the child. […] The great similarity between children’s temper tantrums and those of young primates, and the similarity in response by the caregiver (initial distancing but eventual affiliation), suggest a shared developmental underpinning of reconciliation.”
“if a conflict-provoking situation arises between two animals and one grooms the other, then aggression may be less likely than when no affiliative behavior is exchanged. One method for evaluating such conflict management is to observe primate groups in contexts known to increase social tension and the potential for aggression. If submission, tension-regulating behavior, and friendly responses increase in such competitive situations, then animals may be attempting to reduce escalation of conflict. Two such contexts have been investigated in primate groups: scheduled feeding and crowding. Scheduled feeding of provisioned groups produces a tense situation in anticipation of competition for food and does elicit attempts to reduce conflict beforehand […]. Crowding produces another situation in which increased competition for space produces a context in which aggression may be reduced through behavioral mechanisms. With respect to crowding, two main questions arise: Does crowding increase aggression, and do animals modify behavior under crowded conditions to reduce the potential for conflict? The answer to both questions is a qualified yes”
“In addition to post-conflict reconciliation (the focus of many chapters in this volume), nonhuman primates also use other, more powerful pre-conflict methods to maintain peace and harmony within their group. They adopt specific strategies to dissipate tension and reduce conflict before it erupts, suggesting that they possess the ability to anticipate these events and plan their behavior accordingly […] it may be naive to expect a simple relationship between density and aggression in primates because primates have complex and flexible social behavior and advanced cognitive abilities. They do not react passively to changing situations, such as increases in density, but may actively change their behavior to cope with adverse situations. […] Results indicate that different species may have unique reactions to short-term crowding and that more than one strategy may be used in response to increased density […] there is evidence that primates adopt different strategies (e.g., inhibition, conflict avoidance, or tension reduction) depending on the duration of crowding, the species studied, and the individual characteristics of the interacting partners (i.e., the age, sex, and kinship of particular dyads). […] Mongoose responses to crowding indicate that species other than primates modify behavior under high density and that the behavioral changes may be adaptive strategies to manage conflict. […] The behavioral reactions of humans to crowding are variable […], but the most common result is an increase in aggression […] and a decrease in affiliative interactions under higher density […] The decrease in social interaction has generally been interpreted as a withdrawal strategy to cope with the increased social stimulation at higher density […]. Remarkably, the pattern of response is quite similar to the conflict-avoidance strategy observed in macaques under short-term crowding […] individuals differ in their responses to crowding. Increased aggression during crowding appears to be more likely in males than in females […] Individual personality traits may also influence reactions to crowding. […] Such differential effects preclude describing a singular human pattern of response to crowding. […] [the results] appear to show some behavioral similarities between humans and other animals. Freedman (1979) argues that we should not assume that the reactions of human and non-human primates to crowding differ until data indicate otherwise.”
“young animals especially are highly motivated to form attachments for their own safety, and when they perceive themselves to be at risk, they react strongly when separated from attachment figures. Although a dramatic protest-despair reaction may be less marked in older individuals whose attachments are less strong […], we think that even among adults there are likely to be detectable signs of distress upon separation, and relief from distress upon reunion, when an individual values its relationship with a particular partner. Indeed, Cubicciotti & Mason (1975) showed such effects in adult titi and squirrel monkey (Saimiri sciureus) pair mates that were separated from each other for only 90 minutes and then reunited. Similarly, adult humans with close relationships often report emotional reactions (such as loneliness, anxiety, or even despair) to physical separation (Feeny 1998). […] Studies of attachment in humans have used mother-infant separations and reunions as a way of assessing the security of the attachment bond. The separation is itself a stressful experience for the infant, and the infant’s response to separation, and especially reunion with the mother, is characteristically different for infants with secure versus ambivalent attachments […]. Analogous results have been reported for nonhuman primates (e.g., Dettling et al. 1998).”
“[We embrace] MacLean’s (1952) view of emotions as brain functions involved in maintaining individual survival. His evolutionary approach to brain anatomy led him to point out that emotions are not uniquely human traits because most of the brain structures involved in emotions are essentially the same in all mammals and perhaps in all vertebrates. Escaping from danger, for example, is a basic survival response for all animals. […] MacLean’s conceptual framework is still at the basis of the current evolutionary view of emotion (LeDoux 1996), and significant advances in neurophysiology have supported this view […] [An] important class of indicators of emotion is self-directed behavior, such as self-touch, self-scratching, and self-grooming. Apart from the hygienic function of self-directed behaviors, recent ethological studies on nonhuman primates have documented their occurrence in situations of uncertainty, social tension, or impending danger […]. Similarly, high levels of self-directed behavior are characteristic of humans experiencing anxiety […] Measures of variation in hormones and neurotransmitters associated with the stress response (e.g., cortisol, norepinephrine) have provided biological support for individual differences in emotional profiles of children, baboons, and macaques […] Behavioral indicators of anxiety […] increase in frequency under […] conditions that are associated with high risk of aggressive conflict. In captive group-living chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) vocalizations of neighboring groups increase the likelihood of intragroup aggression and, as a consequence, are followed by higher rates of self-scratching”
“Testosterone may influence aggressive tendencies, and serotonin may regulate the threshold and intensity of the behavioral expression of aggression. Individuals with low serotonin levels exhibit impaired impulse control and a low threshold to escalate when facing potential conflict […] Territorial disputes occur naturally in the wild in many species, and when staged in laboratories, they result in marked physiological differences between winners and losers. For example, the levels of hormones associated with the stress response, such as glucocorticoids, are higher in losers than in winners after dyadic confrontations in a variety of species (e.g., swordtail fish, […] guinea pigs […], tree shrews […] In rats (Rattus norvegicus) differences between winners and losers may persist for several hours, even when the two opponents are separated from each other after the encounter […] Interestingly, hostile behavior during marital conflict in otherwise happy human couples produces changes in blood pressure, immunological function, and hormonal concentration typical of the stress response […] Even if overt aggression is reduced by establishing dominance relationships, conflicts of interest are usually not resolved in favor of subordinate individuals. In addition, subordinates have less control over the social environment and are strongly constrained in their actions. Accordingly, dominant and subordinate individuals differ in their physiological states […] evidence from different sources supports the view that reconciliation has an emotional impact by reducing post-conflict anxiety. […] there is now evidence from a number of different species that many of the most common vocalizations given by nonhuman primates function to initiate and facilitate social interactions. Playback experiments with adult female baboons have demonstrated that vocalizations also serve to diminish the strength of recipients’ responses to former aggressors’ potentially threatening behavior. Most important, apparently reconciliatory vocalizations influence recipients’ willingness to approach and be approached by former aggressors.”
“The tendency of human beings to respond with distress to the end of a close relationship is a consistent phenomenon across different cultures and across the age span […]. Recent social psychology studies have concluded that threats to social bonds are a primary source of anxiety […] and that social exclusion is probably the most common cause of anxiety […]. Behavioral and physiological responses to the disturbance and restoration of social relationships emerge early in life. These responses have been extensively studied in nonhuman primates through experimental manipulations of the mother-infant relationship […] disturbance through experimental separation provokes strong responses, such as increased plasma cortisol and heart rate, in the infant and the mother; reunions of mothers with their infants restore their physiological responses to baseline [in both nonhuman primates and rodents] […]. Similar physiological changes also are found when adults of established pairs of the monogamous titi monkeys (Callicebus moloch) are separated from each other […], suggesting that the disruption of strong bonds has similar effects throughout the life span. […] The marked stress response normally evoked by stimuli, such as exposure to novel environments or objects, exposure to naturally occurring predators (e.g., snakes), or separation of infants from their mothers, is buffered by the presence of familiar conspecifics”
“The mediation of reunions and other forms of conflict resolution does not need to involve only “negative” emotions, such as anxiety, fear, or distress. Conflict resolution often occurs through affiliative contacts that are likely to be associated with positive sensations. Gentle touching causes relaxation and a reduction in heart rate in humans, rhesus monkeys, and horses […] Allogrooming in monkeys decreases heart rate […] Although the actions of endogenous brain opioids affect and are affected by several hormones and neurotransmitters, their involvement in mother-infant attachment and separation distress is certain […]. The experience of separation distress likely provides the basic motivation for social reunion, and the subsequent opioid release alleviates separation distress, replacing it with positive sensations. This is probably also true for relationships between adults. For example, adult talapoin monkeys (Miopithecus talapoin) that have been socially isolated show a significant increase in brain opioids following affiliative behavior with their peers upon reunion […] The perspective of emotional mediation of social processes, including conflict resolution, does not require the identification of specific humanlike emotions, especially when the conscious feeling is not considered. It is only necessary to characterize the conditions (e.g., post-escalation relationship disturbance), the various changes (e.g., increased self-scratching), and the factors affecting them (e.g., relationship quality). […] this perspective can explain the effects of relationship quality on reconciliation without necessarily implying conscious knowledge of relationship value.”
This will be my last post about the book. Go here for a background post and my overall impression of the book – I’ll limit this post to coverage of the ‘Simple Models of Complex Phenomena’-chapter which I mentioned in that post, as well as a few observations from the introduction to part 5 of the book, which talks a little bit about what the chapter is about in general terms. The stuff they write in the chapter is in a way a sort of overview over the kind of approach to things which you may well end up adopting unconsciously if you’re working in a field like economics or ecology and a defence of such an approach; I’ve as mentioned in the previous post about the book talked about these sorts of things before, but there’s some new stuff in here as well. The chapter is written in the context of Boyd and Richerson’s coverage of their ‘Darwinian approach to evolution’, but many of the observations here are of a much more general nature and relate to the application of statistical and mathematical modelling in a much broader context; and some of those observations that do not directly relate to broader contexts still do as far as I can see have what might be termed ‘generalized analogues’. The chapter coverage was actually interesting enough for me to seriously consider reading a book or two on these topics (books such as this one), despite the amount of work I know may well be required to deal with a book like this.
I exclude a lot of stuff from the chapter in this post, and there are a lot of other good chapters in the book. Again, you should read this book.
Here’s the stuff from the introduction:
“Chapter 19 is directed at those in the social sciences unfamiliar with a style of deploying mathematical models that is second nature to economists, evolutionary biologists, engineers, and others. Much science in many disciplines consists of a toolkit of very simple mathematical models. To many not familiar with the subtle art of the simple model, such formal exercises have two seemingly deadly ﬂaws. First, they are not easy to follow. […] Second, motivation to follow the math is often wanting because the model is so cartoonishly simple relative to the real world being analyzed. Critics often level the charge ‘‘reductionism’’ with what they take to be devastating effect. The modeler’s reply is that these two criticisms actually point in opposite directions and sum to nothing. True, the model is quite simple relative to reality, but even so, the analysis is difﬁcult. The real lesson is that complex phenomena like culture require a humble approach. We have to bite off tiny bits of reality to analyze and build up a more global knowledge step by patient step. […] Simple models, simple experiments, and simple observational programs are the best the human mind can do in the face of the awesome complexity of nature. The alternatives to simple models are either complex models or verbal descriptions and analysis. Complex models are sometimes useful for their predictive power, but they have the vice of being difﬁcult or impossible to understand. The heuristic value of simple models in schooling our intuition about natural processes is exceedingly important, even when their predictive power is limited. […] Unaided verbal reasoning can be unreliable […] The lesson, we think, is that all serious students of human behavior need to know enough math to at least appreciate the contributions simple mathematical models make to the understanding of complex phenomena. The idea that social scientists need less math than biologists or other natural scientists is completely mistaken.”
And below I’ve posted the chapter coverage:
“A great deal of the progress in evolutionary biology has resulted from the deployment of relatively simple theoretical models. Staddon’s, Smith’s, and Maynard Smith’s contributions illustrate this point. Despite their success, simple models have been subjected to a steady stream of criticism. The complexity of real social and biological phenomena is compared to the toylike quality of the simple models used to analyze them and their users charged with unwarranted reductionism or plain simplemindedness.
This critique is intuitively appealing—complex phenomena would seem to require complex theories to understand them—but misleading. In this chapter we argue that the study of complex, diverse phenomena like organic evolution requires complex, multilevel theories but that such theories are best built from toolkits made up of a diverse collection of simple models. Because individual models in the toolkit are designed to provide insight into only selected aspects of the more complex whole, they are necessarily incomplete. Nevertheless, students of complex phenomena aim for a reasonably complete theory by studying many related simple models. The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution provides a good example: ﬁtness-optimizing models, one and multiple locus genetic models, and quantitative genetic models all emphasize certain details of the evolutionary process at the expense of others. While any given model is simple, the theory as a whole is much more comprehensive than any one of them.”
“In the last few years, a number of scholars have attempted to understand the processes of cultural evolution in Darwinian terms […] The idea that uniﬁes all this work is that social learning or cultural transmission can be modeled as a system of inheritance; to understand the macroscopic patterns of cultural change we must understand the microscopic processes that increase the frequency of some culturally transmitted variants and reduce the frequency of others. Put another way, to understand cultural evolution we must account for all of the processes by which cultural variation is transmitted and modiﬁed. This is the essence of the Darwinian approach to evolution.”
“In the face of the complexity of evolutionary processes, the appropriate strategy may seem obvious: to be useful, models must be realistic; they should incorporate all factors that scientists studying the phenomena know to be important. This reasoning is certainly plausible, and many scientists, particularly in economics […] and ecology […], have constructed such models, despite their complexity. On this view, simple models are primitive, things to be replaced as our sophistication about evolution grows. Nevertheless, theorists in such disciplines as evolutionary biology and economics stubbornly continue to use simple models even though improvements in empirical knowledge, analytical mathematics, and computing now enable them to create extremely elaborate models if they care to do so. Theorists of this persuasion eschew more detailed models because (1) they are hard to understand, (2) they are difﬁcult to analyze, and (3) they are often no more useful for prediction than simple models. […] Detailed models usually require very large amounts of data to determine the various parameter values in the model. Such data are rarely available. Moreover, small inaccuracies or errors in the formulation of the model can produce quite erroneous predictions. The temptation is to ‘‘tune’’ the model, making small changes, perhaps well within the error of available data, so that the model produces reasonable answers. When this is done, any predictive power that the model might have is due more to statistical ﬁtting than to the fact that it accurately represents actual causal processes. It is easy to make large sacriﬁces of understanding for small gains in predictive power.”
“In the face of these difﬁculties, the most useful strategy will usually be to build a variety of simple models that can be completely understood but that still capture the important properties of the processes of interest. Liebenstein (1976: ch. 2) calls such simple models ‘‘sample theories.’’ Students of complex and diverse subject matters develop a large body of models from which ‘‘samples’’ can be drawn for the purpose at hand. Useful sample theories result from attempts to satisfy two competing desiderata: they should be simple enough to be clearly and completely grasped, and at the same time they should reﬂect how real processes actually do work, at least to some approximation. A systematically constructed population of sample theories and combinations of them constitutes the theory of how the whole complex process works. […] If they are well designed, they are like good caricatures, capturing a few essential features of the problem in a recognizable but stylized manner and with no attempt to represent features not of immediate interest. […] The user attempts to discover ‘‘robust’’ results, conclusions that are at least qualitatively correct, at least for some range of situations, despite the complexity and diversity of the phenomena they attempt to describe. […] Note that simple models can often be tested for their scientiﬁc content via their predictions even when the situation is too complicated to make practical predictions. Experimental or statistical controls often make it possible to expose the variation due to the processes modeled, against the background of ‘‘noise’’ due to other ones, thus allowing a ceteris paribus prediction for purposes of empirical testing.”
“Generalized sample theories are an important subset of the simple sample theories used to understand complex, diverse problems. They are designed to capture the qualitative properties of the whole class of processes that they are used to represent, while more specialized ones are used for closer approximations to narrower classes of cases. […] One might agree with the case for a diverse toolkit of simple models but still doubt the utility of generalized sample theories. Fitness-maximizing calculations are often used as a simple caricature of how selection ought to work most of the time in most organisms to produce adaptations. Does such a generalized sample theory have any serious scientiﬁc purpose? Some might argue that their qualitative kind of understanding is, at best, useful for giving nonspecialists a simpliﬁed overview of complicated topics and that real scientiﬁc progress still occurs entirely in the construction of specialized sample theories that actually predict. A sterner critic might characterize the attempt to construct generalized models as loose speculation that actually inhibits the real work of discovering predictable relationships in particular systems. These kinds of objections implicitly assume that it is possible to do science without any kind of general model. All scientists have mental models of the world. The part of the model that deals with their disciplinary specialty is more detailed than the parts that represent related areas of science. Many aspects of a scientist’s mental model are likely to be vague and never expressed. The real choice is between an intuitive, perhaps covert, general theory and an explicit, often mathematical, one. […] To insist upon empirical science in the style of physics is to insist upon the impossible. However, to give up on empirical tests and prediction would be to abandon science and retreat to speculative philosophy. Generalized sample theories normally make only limited qualitative predictions. The logistic model of population growth is a good elementary example. At best, it is an accurate model only of microbial growth in the laboratory. However, it captures something of the biology of population growth in more complex cases. Moreover, its simplicity makes it a handy general model to incorporate into models that must also represent other processes such as selection, and intra- and interspeciﬁc competition. If some sample theory is consistently at variance with the data, then it must be modiﬁed. The accumulation of these kinds of modiﬁcations can eventually alter general theory […] A generalized model is useful so long as its predictions are qualitatively correct, roughly conforming to the majority of cases. It is helpful if the inevitable limits of the model are understood. It is not necessarily an embarrassment if more than one alternative formulation of a general theory, built from different sample models, is more or less equally correct. In this case, the comparison of theories that are empirically equivalent makes clearer what is at stake in scientiﬁc controversies and may suggest empirical and theoretical steps toward a resolution.”
“The thorough study of simple models includes pressing them to their extreme limits. This is especially useful at the second step of development, where simple models of basic processes are combined into a candidate generalized model of an interesting question. There are two related purposes in this exercise. First, it is helpful to have all the implications of a given simple model exposed for comparative purposes, if nothing else. A well-understood simple sample theory serves as a useful point of comparison for the results of more complex alternatives, even when some conclusions are utterly ridiculous. Second, models do not usually just fail; they fail for particular reasons that are often very informative. Just what kinds of modiﬁcations are required to make the initially ridiculous results more nearly reasonable? […] The exhaustive analysis of many sample models in various combinations is also the main means of seeking robust results (Wimsatt, 1981). One way to gain conﬁdence in simple models is to build several models embodying different characterizations of the problem of interest and different simplifying assumptions. If the results of a model are robust, the same qualitative results ought to obtain for a whole family of related models in which the supposedly extraneous details differ. […] Similarly, as more complex considerations are introduced into the family of models, simple model results can be considered robust only if it seems that the qualitative conclusion holds for some reasonable range of plausible conditions.”
“A plausibility argument is a hypothetical explanation having three features in common with a traditional hypothesis: (1) a claim of deductive soundness, of in-principle logical sufﬁciency to explain a body of data; (2) sufﬁcient support from the existing body of empirical data to suggest that it might actually be able to explain a body of data as well as or better than competing plausibility arguments; and (3) a program of research that might distinguish between the claims of competing plausibility arguments. The differences are that competing plausibility arguments (1) are seldom mutually exclusive, (2) can seldom be rejected by a single sharp experimental test (or small set of them), and (3) often end up being revised, limited in their generality or domain of applicability, or combined with competing arguments rather than being rejected. In other words, competing plausibility arguments are based on the claims that a different set of submodels is needed to achieve a given degree of realism and generality, that different parameter values of common submodels are required, or that a given model is correct as far as it goes, but applies with less generality, realism, or predictive power than its proponents claim. […] Human sociobiology provides a good example of a plausibility argument. The basic premise of human sociobiology is that ﬁtness-optimizing models drawn from evolutionary biology can be used to understand human behavior. […] We think that the clearest way to address the controversial questions raised by competing plausibility arguments is to try to formulate models with parameters such that for some values of the critical parameters the results approximate one of the polar positions in such debates, while for others the model approximates the other position.”
“A well-developed plausibility argument differs sharply from another common type of argument that we call a programmatic claim. Most generally, a programmatic claim advocates a plan of research for addressing some outstanding problem without, however, attempting to construct a full plausibility argument. […] An attack on an existing, often widely accepted, plausibility argument on the grounds that the plausibility argument is incomplete is a kind of programmatic claim. Critiques of human sociobiology are commonly of this type. […] The criticism of human sociobiology has far too frequently depended on mere programmatic claims (often invalid ones at that, as when sociobiologists are said to ignore the importance of culture and to depend on genetic variation to explain human differences). These claims are generally accompanied by dubious burden-of-proof arguments. […] We have argued that theory about complex-diverse phenomena is necessarily made up of simple models that omit many details of the phenomena under study. It is very easy to criticize theory of this kind on the grounds that it is incomplete (or defend it on the grounds that it one day will be much more complete). Such criticism and defense is not really very useful because all such models are incomplete in many ways and may be ﬂawed because of it. What is required is a plausibility argument that shows that some factor that is omitted could be sufﬁciently important to require inclusion in the theory of the phenomenon under consideration, or a plausible case that it really can be neglected for most purposes. […] It seems to us that until very recently, ‘‘nature-nurture’’ debates have been badly confused because plausibility arguments have often been taken to have been successfully countered by programmatic claims. It has proved relatively easy to construct reasonable and increasingly sophisticated Darwinian plausibility arguments about human behavior from the prevailing general theory. It is also relatively easy to spot the programmatic ﬂaws in such arguments […] The problem is that programmatic objections have not been taken to imply a promise to deliver a full plausibility claim. Rather, they have been taken as a kind of declaration of independence of the social sciences from biology. Having shown that the biological theory is in principle incomplete, the conclusion is drawn that it can safely be ignored.”
“Scientists should be encouraged to take a sophisticated attitude toward empirical testing of plausibility arguments […] Folk Popperism among scientists has had the very desirable result of reducing the amount of theory-free descriptive empiricism in many complex-diverse disciplines, but it has had the undesirable effect of encouraging a search for simple mutually exclusive hypotheses that can be accepted or rejected by single experiments. By our argument, very few important problems in evolutionary biology or the social sciences can be resolved in this way. Rather, individual empirical investigations should be viewed as weighing marginally for or against plausibility arguments. Often, empirical studies may themselves discover or suggest new plausibility arguments or reconcile old ones.”
“We suspect that most evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology on both sides of the dispute would pretty much agree with the defense of the simple models strategy presented here. To reject the strategy of building evolutionary theory from collections of simple models is to embrace a kind of scientiﬁc nihilism in which there is no hope of achieving an understanding of how evolution works. On the other hand, there is reason to treat any given model skeptically. […] It may be possible to defend the proposition that the complexity and diversity of evolutionary phenomena make any scientiﬁc understanding of evolutionary processes impossible. Or, even if we can obtain a satisfactory understanding of particular cases of evolution, any attempt at a general, uniﬁed theory may be impossible. Some critics of adaptationism seem to invoke these arguments against adaptationism without fully embracing them. The problem is that alternatives to adaptationism must face the same problem of diversity and complexity that Darwinians use the simple model strategy to ﬁnesse. The critics, when they come to construct plausibility arguments, will also have to use relatively simple models that are vulnerable to the same attack. If there is a vulgar sociobiology, there is also a vulgar criticism of sociobiology.”
“The first half of the book was not easy to read due to the technical nature of the coverage, and so I decided to put it away for a while. However I did pick it up again, and I’m really glad I did as there’s simply no way around the fact that this book is awesome. Some of the chapters in this book are chapters you need to read.
Highly recommended. Probably the best book I’ve read this year.”
I’ve finished the book – the above is my review of it on goodreads. I gave the book five stars.
The last part of it had (at least) two of those must-read chapters which I when I read them feel like I really ought to blog, and they both had a lot of stuff. The first of these chapters was an awesome chapter on agriculture. I wrote some stuff of my own about that stuff in my last post about the book (I’ve incidentally corrected a few minor inaccuracies in that post since it was posted – I thought I should mention this here), but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done this if I’d known what was in that chapter; they cover this topic in a lot of detail and they do it really well. Many of the aspects they cover incidentally do not overlap with what I wrote though some of course do; you’ll surely get a lot out of reading this post despite having read my earlier comments on the topic (at least if you’re interested in these sorts of things). In my archaeology textbook, which is only a few years old, the idea that the dramatic climate change which took place around the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary was a crucial factor in the development of agriculture is taken for granted, but Boyd and Richerson’s coverage reminds us that archaeologists were not always so eager to accept this hypothesis (and it should be noted that other, weaker, hypotheses are mentioned/covered in the archaeology text as well – I was skeptical about some of these while reading the book (I wrote a couple of pretty harsh remarks in the margin) because they seemed implausible to me; Boyd and Richerson illustrates in the chapter e.g. through application of models of population dynamics that I had reason to be skeptical). I forgot to talk about climate in my last post on the topic probably because I assumed people knew this part, but it gets its fair share of the attention in this post anyway so I guess no harm is done.
The other chapter I consider to be best categorized as a ‘must-read’ chapter is chapter 19, on ‘Simple Models of Complex Phenomena’, which relates a little bit – but only a little – to a blog post of mine which has recently got some attention. When reading that chapter I was never in any doubt I’d cover that stuff here – this stuff is pure gold. The ‘Microevolutionary processes give rise to history’-chapter was also really interesting and the last chapter on memes there are probably more than a few people who’d benefit from reading, but I’ll not cover that stuff here; I don’t think I’d have problems writing 4 or 5 posts about the remaining parts of the book, and this is simply too much. I’ll talk about agriculture in this post and then I’ll probably cover the model chapter in a later post. It’s possible that the agriculture coverage in the book is less interesting to people with very limited knowledge of archaeology and human prehistory than it is to me (not that I’d say I know much about this stuff – actually on second thought I probably belong in the group of people with ‘very limited knowledge’ as well…), because a lot of things which relate closely to what they write about are perhaps hard to conceptualize without knowing anything about these things, but anyway I write about what I find interesting, so here we are.
Let’s move on to the book chapter coverage:
“Numerous subsequent investigations [after the Braidwood team] now provide a reasonably detailed picture of the origins of agriculture in several independent centers and its subsequent diffusion to almost all of the earth suitable for cultivation. These investigations have discovered no region in which agriculture developed earlier or faster than in the Near East, though a North Chinese center of domestication of millet may prove almost as early. Other centers seem to have developed later, or more slowly, or with a different sequence of stages, or all three. The spread of agriculture from centers of origin to more remote areas is well documented for Europe and North America [a major problem in relation to East Asia/China is incidentally the lack of ‘transitional sites’ dated around 8.000 to 6.000 years BC; we have very early sites and then we have “abundant and widespread evidence for sedentary Neolithic villages” by 6000 BC (Scarre et al.) – but we miss some evidence as to what happened in between – US]. Ethnography also gives us cases where hunters and gatherers persisted to recent times in areas seemingly highly suitable for agriculture, most notably much of western North America and Australia. Attempts to account for this rather complex pattern are a major focus of archaeology.”
“The processes involved in such a complex phenomenon as the origin of agriculture are many and densely entangled. Many authors have given climate change a key explanatory role […] The coevolution of human subsistence strategies and plant and animal domesticates must also play an important role […] Hunting-and-gathering subsistence may normally be a superior strategy to incipient agriculture […], and, if so, some local factor may be necessary to provide the initial impetus to heavier use of relatively low-quality, high-processing-effort plant resources that eventually result in plant domestication. Population pressure is perhaps the most popular candidate […] Quite plausibly, the complex details of local history entirely determine the evolutionary sequence leading to the origin and spread of agriculture in every region. Indeed, important advances in our understanding of the origins of agriculture have resulted from pursuit of the historical details of particular cases […] Nonetheless, we propose that much about the origin of agriculture can be understood in terms of two propositions:
Agriculture was impossible during the last glacial age. During the last glacial age, climates were variable and very dry over large areas. Atmospheric levels of CO2 were low. Probably most important, last-glacial climates were characterized by high-amplitude ﬂuctuations on timescales of a decade or less to a millennium. Because agricultural subsistence systems are vulnerable to weather extremes, and because the cultural evolution of subsistence systems making heavy, specialized use of plant resources occurs relatively slowly, agriculture could not evolve.
In the long run, agriculture is compulsory in the holocene epoch. In contrast to the Pleistocene climates, stable Holocene climates allowed the evolution of agriculture in vast areas with relatively warm, wet climates, or access to irrigation. Prehistoric populations tended to grow rapidly to the carrying capacity set by the environment and the efﬁciency of the prevailing subsistence system. Local communities that discover or acquire more intensive subsistence strategies will increase in number and exert competitive pressure on smaller populations with less intensive strategies. Thus, in the Holocene epoch, such intergroup competition generated a competitive ratchet favoring the origin and diffusion of agriculture.”
This is the basic idea. But the chapter has a lot more:
“For the last 400,000 years, very high-resolution climate proxy data are available from ice cores taken from the deep ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Resolution of events lasting little more than a decade is possible in Greenland ice 80,000 years old, improving to monthly resolution 3,000 years ago. During the last glacial, the ice core data show that the climate was highly variable on time scales of centuries to millennia […] The last glacial period was arid and extremely variable compared to the Holocene. Sharp millennial-scale excursions occur in estimated temperatures, atmospheric dust, and greenhouse gases. The intense variability of the last glacial carries right down to the limits of the nearly 10-year resolution of the ice core data. […] Even though diffusion and thinning within the ice core progressively erases high-frequency variation in the core […] the shift from full glacial conditions about 18,000 years ago to the Holocene interglacial is accompanied by a dramatic reduction in variation on timescales shorter than 150 years. The Holocene (the last relatively warm, ice-free 11,600 years) has been a period of very stable climate, at least by the standards of the last glacial age. The climate ﬂuctuations recorded in high-latitude ice cores are also recorded at latitudes where agriculture occurs today. Sediments overlain by anoxic water that inhibits sediment mixing by burrowing organisms are a source of low- and mid-latitude data with a resolution rivaling ice cores. Events recorded in North Atlantic sediment cores are closely coupled to those recorded in Greenland ice […], but so are records distant from Greenland. Hendy and Kennett (2000) report on water temperature proxies from sediment cores from the often-anoxic Santa Barbara Basin just offshore of central California. This data shows millennial- and submillennial-scale temperature ﬂuctuations from 60–18 thousand years ago with an amplitude of about 8°C, compared to ﬂuctuations of about 2°C in the Holocene epoch. As in the Greenland cores, the millennial-scale events often show very abrupt onsets and terminations and are often punctuated by brief spikes of warmth and cold.”
“We expect that opportunism was the most important strategy for managing the risks associated with plant foods during the last glacial age. Annual plants have dormant seed that spreads their risk of failure over many years, and perennials vary seed output or storage organ size substantially between years as weather dictates. In a highly variable climate, the specialization of exploitation on one or a few especially promising species would be highly unlikely, because ‘‘promise’’ in one year or even for a decade or two would turn to runs of years with little or no success. However, most years would likely be favorable for some species or another, so generalized plant-exploitation systems are compatible with highly variable climates. […] Plant food-rich diets take considerable time to develop. Plant foods are generally low in protein and often high in toxins. Some time is required to work out a balanced diet rich in plant foods, for example, by incorporating legumes to replace part of the meat in diets. Whether intensiﬁcation and agriculture always lead to health declines due to nutritional inadequacy is debatable, but the potential for them to do so absent sometimes-subtle adaptations is clear […] The seasonal round of activities has to be much modiﬁed, and women’s customary activities have to be given more prominence relative to men’s hunting. Changes in social organization either by evolution in situ or by borrowing tend to be slow […] We doubt that even sophisticated last-glacial hunter-gatherers would have been able to solve the complex nutritional and scheduling problems associated with a plant-rich diet while coping with unpredictable high-amplitude change on timescales shorter than the equilibration time of plant migrations and shorter than actual Holocene trajectories of intensiﬁcation.”
“Low mean productivity, along with greater variance in productivity, would have greatly decreased the attractiveness of plant resources during the last glacial age. Lower average rainfall and carbon dioxide during the last glacial age reduced the area of the earth’s surface suitable for agriculture […] On present evidence we cannot determine whether aridity, low CO2 levels, millennial-scale climate variability, or submillennial-scale weather variation was the main culprit in preventing the evolution of agriculture. Low CO2 and climate variation would handicap the evolution of dependence on plant foods everywhere and were surely more signiﬁcant than behavioral or technological obstacles. Hominids evolved as plant-using omnivores (Milton, 2000), and the basic technology for plant exploitation existed at least 10 thousand years before the Holocene […] At least in favorable localities, appreciable use seems to have been made of plant foods, including large-seeded grasses, well back into the Pleistocene […] Signiﬁcantly, we believe, the use of such technology over spans of last-glacial time that were sufﬁcient for successive waves of intensiﬁcation of subsistence in the Holocene led to only minor subsistence intensiﬁcation, compared to the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and their ever-more-intensive successors. […] After 11,600 B.P., the Holocene period of relatively warm, wet, stable, CO2-rich environments began. Subsistence intensiﬁcation and eventually agriculture followed. Thus, while not perfectly instantaneous, the shift from glacial to Holocene climates was a very large change and took place much more rapidly than cultural evolution could track.”
“Might we not expect agriculture to have emerged in the last interglacial 130,000 years ago or even during one of the even older interglacials? No archaeological evidence has come to light suggesting the presence of technologies that might be expected to accompany forays into intensive plant collecting or agriculture at this time. Anatomically modern humans may have appeared in Africa as early as 130,000 years ago […], but they were not behaviorally modern. Humans of the last interglacial were uniformly archaic in behavior. Very likely, then, the humans of the last interglacial were neither cognitively nor culturally capable of evolving agricultural subsistence. However, climate might also explain the lack of marked subsistence intensiﬁcation during previous interglacials. Ice cores from the thick Antarctic ice cap at Vostok show that each of the last four interglacials over the last 420,000 years was characterized by a short, sharp peak of warmth, rather than the 11,600-year-long stable plateau of the Holocene (Petit et al., 1999).”
“Once a more productive subsistence system is possible, it will, over the long run, replace the less-productive subsistence system that preceded it. The reason is simple: all else being equal, any group that can use a tract of land more efﬁciently will be able to evict residents that use it less efﬁciently […] More productive uses support higher population densities, or more wealth per capita, or both. An agricultural frontier will tend to expand at the expense of hunter-gatherers as rising population densities on the farming side of the frontier motivate pioneers to invest in acquiring land from less-efﬁcient users. […] Thus, subsistence improvement generates a competitive ratchet as successively more land-efﬁcient subsistence systems lead to population growth and labor intensiﬁcation. Locally, huntergatherers may win some battles (e.g., in the Great Basin; Madsen, 1994), but in the long run the more intensive strategies will win wherever environments are suitable for their deployment. The archaeology supports this argument […] Societies in all regions of the world undergo a very similar pattern of subsistence efﬁciency increase and population increase in the Holocene, albeit at very different rates. Holocene hunter-gatherers developed local equilibria that, while sometimes lasting for thousands of years, were almost always replaced by more intensive equilibria.”
“Cohen’s (1977) inﬂuential book argued that slowly accumulating global-scale population pressure was responsible for the eventual origins of agriculture beginning at the 11,600 B.P. time horizon. He imagines, quite plausibly, that subsistence innovation is driven by increases in population density, but, implausibly we believe, that a long, slow buildup of population gradually drove people to intensify subsistence systems to relieve shortages caused by population growth, eventually triggering a move to domesticates. Looked at one way, population pressure is just the population growth part of the competitive ratchet. However, this argument fails to explain why pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer intensiﬁcation and the transition to agriculture began in numerous locations after 11,600 years ago […] Assuming that humans were essentially modern by the Upper Paleolithic, they would have had 30,000 years to build up a population necessary to generate pressures for intensiﬁcation. Given any reasonable estimate of the human intrinsic rate of natural increase under hunting-and-gathering conditions (somewhat less than 1% yr-1 to 3% yr-1, populations substantially below carrying capacity will double in a century or less […] If agricultural technologies were quick and easy to develop, the population pressure argument would lead us to expect Pleistocene populations to shift in and out of agriculture and other intensive strategies as they ﬁnd themselves in subsistence crises due to environmental deterioration or in periods of plenty due to amelioration. Most likely, minor intensiﬁcations and de-intensiﬁcations were standard operating procedure in the Pleistocene. However, the time needed to progress much toward plant-rich strategies was greater than the ﬂuctuating climate allowed, especially given CO2- and aridity-limited plant production.”
This part is really important to understand, and I know I’ve talked about this before but I’ll say it again: Humans living, say, 25.000 years ago were not stupid. They weren’t monkeys walking around looking for berries in the woods. They probably tried and tried repeatedly to make this kind of stuff work, explore all kinds of creative ways to obtain enough/more food, always slightly adjusting their strategies in order to stay alive and keep having kids – but the climate wouldn’t allow them to ever achieve ‘take off’. As they put it towards the end of the chapter: “If climate variation did not limit intensiﬁcation during the last glacial age to vanishingly slow rates compared to the Holocene epoch, the failure of intensive systems to evolve during the tens of millennia anatomically and culturally modern humans lived as sophisticated hunter-gatherers before the Holocene is a considerable mystery.” It seems climate is a big part of the explanation why we never got to where we are now before we did. Environmental constraints limit the activities of all lifeforms in all kinds of ways, and it would serve us well every once in a while to recall that we are in fact no different, even if we like to think we are, and that such effects may have played a crucial role in the history of our species.
I’ve added a bit more from the book. Some of the stuff below I talked about in the last post as well (do recall that I wrote that post before I read this chapter), but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to include it here anyway:
“The timing of initiation of agriculture varies quite widely […] The exact sequence of events also varies quite widely. For example, in the Near East, sedentism preceded agriculture, at least in the Levantine Natuﬁan sequence, but in Mesoamerica crops seem to have been added to a hunting-and-gathering system that was dispersed and long remained rather mobile […] For example, squash seems to have been cultivated around 10,000 B.P. in Mesoamerica, some 4,000 years before corn and bean domestication began to lead to the origin of a fully agricultural subsistence system […] Some mainly hunting-and-gathering societies seem to have incorporated small amounts of domesticated plant foods into their subsistence system without this leading to full-scale agriculture for a very long time. […] the path forward through the whole intensiﬁcation sequence varied considerably from case to case.”
“In all known cases, the independent centers of domestication show a late sequence of intensiﬁcation beginning with a shift from a hunter-gatherer subsistence system based upon low-cost resources using minimal technological aids to a system based upon the procurement and processing of high-cost resources, including small game and especially plant seeds or other labor-intensive plant resources, using an increasing range of chipped and ground stone tools […] The reasons for this shift are the subject of much work among archaeologists […] The shifts at least accelerate and become widespread only in the latest Pleistocene or Holocene. However, a distinct tendency toward intensiﬁcation is often suggested for the Upper Paleolithic more generally. […] Upper Paleolithic peoples often made considerable use of small mammals and birds in contrast to earlier populations. These species have much lower body fat than large animals, and excessive consumption causes ammonia buildup in the body due to limitations on the rate of urea synthesis […] Consequently, any signiﬁcant reliance on low-fat small animals implies corresponding compensation with plant calories, and at least a few Upper Paleolithic sites, such as the Ohalo II settlement on the Sea of Galilee […], show considerable use of plant materials in Pleistocene diets. Large-seeded annual species like wild barley were no doubt attractive resources in the Pleistocene when present in abundance and would have been used opportunistically during the last glacial age. If our hypothesis is correct, in the last glacial age no one attractive species like wild barley would have been consistently abundant (or perhaps productive enough) for a long enough span of time in the same location to have been successfully targeted by an evolving strategy of intensiﬁcation, even if their less intensive exploitation was common. The broad spectrum of species, including small game and plants, reﬂected in these cases is not per se evidence of intensiﬁcation (specialized use of more costly but more productive resources using more labor and dedicated technology), as is sometimes argued […] In most hunter-gatherer systems, marginal diet cost and diet richness (number of species used) are essentially independent […], and prey size is far less important in determining prey cost than either mode or context of capture […] For all these reasons, quantitative features of subsistence technology are a better index of Pleistocene resource intensiﬁcation than species used. We believe that the dramatic increase in the quantity and range of small chipped stone and groundstone tools only after 15,000 B.P. signals the beginning of the pattern of intensiﬁcation that led to agriculture.”
“Early intensiﬁcation of plant resource use would have tended to generate the same competitive ratchet as the later forms of intensiﬁcation. Hunter-gatherers who subsidize hunting with plant-derived calories can maintain higher population densities and thus will tend to deplete big game to levels that cannot sustain hunting specialists […] Once the climate ameliorated, the rate of intensiﬁcation accelerated immediately in the case of the Near East. In other regions changes right at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition were modest to invisible […] The full working out of agrarian subsistence systems took thousands of years. […] Fully agricultural subsistence systems in the sense of a dominance of domesticated species in the diet typically postdate the origin of agriculture [which they define as “dependence upon domesticated crops and animals for subsistence” – US] by a millennium or more. […] Zvelebil (1996) emphasizes the complexity and durability of frontiers between farmers and hunter-gatherers and the likelihood that in many places the diffusion of both genes and ideas about cultivation was a prolonged process of exchange across a comparatively stable ethnic and economic frontier.”
“During the past two decades there has been a sharp increase in interest in cooperation, peace, and conflict resolution in disparate disciplines, such as anthropology, social and developmental psychology, ethology, political sciences, and legal studies. We have closely followed this development in animal behavior and directly participated in it with our work on nonhuman primates. In the past few years, we have had an increasing number of exchanges with colleagues from different disciplines and realized the common bases underlying these heterogeneous research efforts. This volume aims to bring together the various approaches to the study of conflict management and to emphasize the similarities among them. […] we combine in one volume 36 original contributions based on the efforts of 52 authors and coauthors. […] Each contribution is a review of a particular aspect of the vast topic of conflict management: some contributions summarize years of research, whereas others present recent developments. Each contribution is written to stand on its own, but it is also a part of the whole. […] The result is an interdisciplinary volume that provides an overview of progress on many aspects of natural conflict resolution.”
I’ve as already mentioned been reading this book. It’s full of good stuff, I really like it so far. There’s a lot of stuff about the behaviours of apes and monkey in this book as well (there are e.g. chapters with titles like ‘Covariation of Conflict Management Patterns across Macaque Species’ and ‘The Peacefulness of Cooperatively Breeding Primates’), but in the coverage below I’ve mostly limited myself to coverage of studies on humans as the first chapters of the book mostly deal with these kinds of things. I’ll probably talk about some of the animal study results later on. When reading the last of the chapters from which I quote below, I was actually thinking to myself that ‘the stuff in this chapter is the kind of stuff all parents should really know about and be aware of…’ I’m sure almost none of them do, they just do what they do and many of them are probably doing perfectly alright anyway, or at least ‘good enough’.
“Whether the units are people, animals, groups, or nations, as soon as several units together try to accomplish something, there is a need to overcome competition and set aside differences. The problem of a harmonization of goals and reduction of competition for the sake of larger objectives is universal, and the processes that serve to accomplish this may be universal too. These dynamics are present to different degrees among the employees within a corporation, the members of a small band of hunter-gatherers, or the individuals in a lion pride. In all cases, mechanisms for the regulation of conflict should be in place. […] the basic dilemma facing competitors is that they sometimes cannot win a fight without losing a friend and supporter. The same principle underlying all Darwinian theory, that individuals pursue their own reproductive interests, thus automatically leads one to assume that animals that depend on cooperation should either avoid open conflict or evolve ways to control the social damage caused by open conflict […] Conflict resolution, like conflict and cooperation, appears to be a natural phenomenon. We should then find similarities in its expression and procedures across cultures and species.”
And we do – an example:
“even though primate species vary greatly in conciliatory tendency, in all species reconciliation is most common after fights between partners with close social ties even if we control for the increased level of interaction among these individuals […] most human conflict concerns familiar individuals. […] not all psychologists and social scientists try to divorce aggressive conflict from other aspects of social life or view it as necessarily destructive and antisocial […] The conflict resolution perspective […] shifts attention from aggression as the expression of an internal state to aggression as the product of a conflict of interest. It regards aggressive behavior as the product of social decision making: it is one of several ways in which conflicts between individuals or groups can be resolved. This framework will be referred to here as the Relational Model […], because it concerns the way aggressive behavior functions within social relationships. […] Once aggressive conflict is viewed as an instrument to negotiate the terms of relationships—an instrument made possible by powerful constraints on the expression of aggression as well as the possibility of social repair—the definition of what is a close or distant relationship changes dramatically. Instead of classifying relationships simply in terms of rates of affiliative and aggressive behavior, the dynamic between the two becomes the critical factor. Relationships marked by high aggression rates may actually be quite close and cooperative. […] Paradoxically, the better developed mechanisms of conflict resolution are, the less reluctant individuals will be to engage in open conflict [as the] ability to maintain working relationships despite conflict, and to undo damage to relationships, makes room for aggression as an instrument of negotiation.”
“Successful social development reconciles individuation with social integration and requires the acquisition of conflict management skills that afford both. The interplay between individual and social motives is already apparent in conflict between toddlers. For instance, Hay & Ross (1982) found that 21-month-old winners of toys would often abandon the toy they had just taken from a peer in order to engage in a new dispute over another toy held by the former opponent. Such tendencies were common even when the toy held by the other was an exact copy of the toy originally won. Earlier, Eckerman et al. (1979) showed that to one-year-old children the attractiveness of a toy increased after another person touched it. Thus toddler conflict may serve to test the “social waters” and may be instrumental in the acquisition of knowledge about social relations as well as ownership.”
“Developmental research commonly focuses on distinct episodes that are separated in time and that can be broken down conceptually into three sequential phases: (1) instigation; (2) termination; and (3) immediate outcome (or resolution). The emphasis in this chapter is on conflict termination and immediate outcome, and for the purpose of our review we combine these under the heading of conflict management. Conflict management can be unilateral or bilateral. Unilateral conflict management is characterized by opportunism and lack of consideration for the opponent’s perspectives and wishes, as well as by subordination. Conversely, bilateral conflict management is characterized by mutual perspective taking and often by dovetailing of opposing goals and expectations […] Immediate outcome is commonly classified in two main categories: distributive and variable conflict outcomes. A distributive outcome includes situations during which one child’s gain is the other child’s loss. A variable outcome refers to situations in which both win or benefit from the resolution […] A variant of this latter category is the integrative outcome […] In this situation a shared interest in social interaction provides the basis for a mutually beneficial resolution.”
“Research on parent-child conflict during the first decade of life most often has focused on emotional outbursts, such as temper tantrums […] and coercive behavior of children toward other family members as evidence of conflict. The frequency of such behavior begins to decline during early childhood and continues to do so during middle childhood […] The frequency of episodes during which parents discipline their children also decreases between the ages of three and nine […] research on conflict management in this period has focused on the relative effectiveness of various parental strategies for gaining compliance and managing negative behaviors. As a result there is little descriptive information about the characteristics of conflict between parents and children and the role of each in conflict management. With young children, parents typically employ distraction and physical assertion for preventing harm and gaining compliance. In middle childhood, however, parents report less frequent physical punishment and increasing use of techniques such as deprivation of privileges, appeals to children’s self-esteem or sense of humor, arousal of children’s sense of guilt, and reminders that children are responsible for what happens to them […] Compared with preschool children, six- to twelve-year-olds are more likely to sulk, become depressed, avoid parents, or engage in passive noncooperation with their parents […] children are increasingly likely to attribute conflict with parents to the inadequacy of parental helping behaviors and disappointment in the frequency of parent-child interactions. […] Naturalistic observations, experimental analogues, and self-reports with both peers […] and family members […] show clearly that adolescents’ conflicts are most commonly terminated through power assertion and disengagement, rather than through negotiation. Later in adolescence preference for power-assertive techniques declines, thus making more complex bilateral techniques, such as negotiation, relatively more common. […] The importance of satisfying resolutions […] is indicated by repeated findings that bilateral engagement in terminating conflict, rather than the occurrence of conflict, is a marker of adaptive, well-functioning relationships […] Children’s concepts of the basis for parental authority also change with age. Whereas preschoolers view parental authority as resting on the power to punish or reward, children in early middle childhood increasingly believe parental authority derives from all the things that parents do for them. After about age eight, parents’ expert knowledge and skill are also seen as reasons to submit to their authority”
“Conflict is universally embedded in sibling relationships. Since most children have siblings, this means that sibling conflict is widely experienced. These conflicts, however, are both unilateral and bilateral in terms of the management tactics used. The use of unilateral tactics such as coercion has been found to be negatively correlated with cooperation between siblings. Unilateral tactics also negatively correlate with helping, sharing, and sympathy expressed by older siblings toward younger ones […] When mothers or fathers favor one sibling (or children perceive them that way), greater conflict and more coercive relations ensue between the children. Moreover, psychosocial adjustment is poorer among children who perceive themselves to be less positively treated by their parents than their siblings […] Overall, crossrelational continuities in conflict management suggest that families constitute social systems rather than separate dyads.”
“Laursen et al. (1998b) used a metaanalytic approach to take a general look at developmental differences in peer conflict management […] The meta-analysis showed that, overall, peers managed conflict more often with negotiation than with coercion or disengagement. Significant developmental contrasts emerged, however. Children (age 2–10) commonly employed coercion, whereas adolescents (age 11–18) frequently employed negotiation as well as coercion. Conversely, young adults (age 19–25) more often resorted to either negotiation or disengagement. […] The meta-analysis […] did not consider the aftermath of peer conflict. Recent cross-cultural findings showed that young children transformed a significant percentage of distributive outcomes into integrative resolutions after a “cooling-off” period of a few minutes […] When such post-conflict reconciliation […] is considered, young children appear considerably more constructive in their approach to peer conflict than one would infer from the aggregated findings of Laursen et al.”
“Interestingly, young children tend to have inflated views of the extent to which they are accepted by their peers […], and they commonly overestimate their own rank—and the rank of liked peers—in the dominance hierarchy […]. Several studies have established a link between conflict management and sociometric status. […] conciliatory strategies [have been] associated with popularity and coercive strategies with rejection by peers […] Commonly, when groups of children first meet (e.g., early in the new school year), conflicts, and assertive interactions not resulting in conflict, occur relatively frequently and contribute to the eventual establishment of a dominance hierarchy […] Once dominance relations are established, rates of conflict and aggression decrease […] first impressions seem to matter in peer groups. Ladd et al. (1988), for instance, found that preschoolers who frequently argued with their peers early in the year were likely to be rejected throughout the entire year. In fact, children who argued early in the year but changed their ways during the year were still rejected later in the year. In a similar vein Denham & Holt (1993) found that peer reputation established early in the year was a significantly stronger predictor of being liked later in the year than actual social behavior.”
“friendships emerge on the basis of shared interests and attitudes as well as the shared understanding that continued interaction between them is in their mutual interest. Observational studies show that, first, agreements must occur over time within a context of shared interests in order for acquaintances to become friends and, second, certain conflicts and certain modes of conflict management actually facilitate friendship formation. For example, the use of “soft” modes of conflict management (e.g., “weak demands” followed by agreement) are associated with “hitting it off” […] friends are more active in their search for solutions, are more taskoriented, and make more active use of conflict to obtain solutions than nonfriends. Overall, some two dozen published investigations contain data comparing friends and nonfriends in terms of conflict management. […] Metaanalyses based on the entire literature with children ranging from preschool age through preadolescence […] confirm the pattern we describe: conflict frequency does not generally differ between friends and nonfriends, but modes of conflict management do. […] Successive agreement/disagreement episodes are instrumental in friendship formation among peers.”
“In families, third parties often contribute to both the incidence and resolution of conflict. Some of these effects are indirect, in that the two principal parties to the conflict behave differently in the presence of the third party than they would under other conditions. For example, mother-son dyads have been found to manifest greater engagement, security, and consistency when the father was present than when mother and son were alone (Gjerde 1986). These differences suggest that in intact families fathers’ presence may indirectly facilitate integrative resolutions to conflict. […] We still know relatively little about the effects of peer intervention on resolution. Most of the available evidence associates peer intervention with distributive resolutions […] even children with a variety of disabilities are often able to manage their conflicts without adult intervention and […] adult mediation strategies should be aimed at helping children manage their conflicts rather than taking over conflict management from them (cf. Perlman & Ross 1997).”
I have read almost three-fourths of the book by now. In this post I have quoted extensively from chapter 14 because this chapter is somewhat different from most of the other chapters in the book; it has no math, but it has a lot of observations which relate to the work they’ve covered in previous chapters, and it’s much easier to blog than most of the stuff in this book.
I don’t always agree with the authors about the details and about the conclusions they draw, but this book is consistently interesting and provides high-quality coverage of the topic in question. Unless things go seriously downhill during the last part of the book, I’ll give it five stars on goodreads.
I wrote some comments and personal observations along the way when I wrote this post, many of which are not closely related to the book coverage. I have posted them below the quotes from the book, in the second half of the post proper. I actually did earlier on make the decision not to include the stuff I’d written in this post at all because I didn’t like what I’d written, but after making a few revisions I changed my mind. I may change it again. Either way writing about these things, rather than just reading about them, is a great way to force yourself to think more carefully about them.
“Evolutionary explanations are recursive. Individual behavior results from an interaction of inherited attributes and environmental contingencies. In most species, genes are the main inherited attributes, but inherited cultural information is also important for humans. Individuals with different inherited attributes may develop different behaviors in the same environment. Every generation, evolutionary processes — natural selection is the prototype — impose environmental effects on individuals as they live their lives. Cumulated over the whole population, these effects change the pool of inherited information, so that the inherited attributes of individuals in the next generation differ, usually subtly, from the attributes in the previous generation. Over evolutionary time, a lineage cycles through the recursive pattern of causal processes once per generation […] Note that in a recursive model, we explain individual behavior and population-level processes in the same model. Individual behavior depends, in any given generation, on the gene pool from which inherited attributes are sampled. The pool of inherited attributes depends in turn upon what happens to a population of individuals as they express those attributes. Evolutionary biologists have a long list of processes that change the gene frequencies, including natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift. However, no organism experiences natural selection. Organisms either live or die, or reproduce or fail to reproduce, for concrete reasons particular to the local environment and the organism’s own particular attributes. If, in a particular environment, some types of individuals do better than others, and if this variation has a heritable basis, then we label as “natural selection” the resulting changes in gene frequencies of populations. We use abstract categories like selection to describe such concrete events because we wish to build up — concrete case by concrete case — some useful generalizations about evolutionary process. Few would argue that evolutionary biology is the poorer for investing effort in this generalizing project. Although some of the processes that lead to cultural change are very different than those that lead to genetic change, the logic of the two evolutionary problems is very similar.”
“Evolutionary theory is always multi-level […] evolutionary theories are systemic, integrating every part of biology. In principle, everything that goes into causing change through time plays its proper part in the theory. […] In theorizing about human evolution, we must include processes affecting culture in our list of evolutionary processes along side those that affect genes. Culture is a system of inheritance. We acquire behavior by imitating other individuals much as we get our genes from our parents. A fancy capacity for high-fidelity imitation is one of the most important derived characters distinguishing us from our primate relatives […] We are also an unusually docile animal (Simon 1990) and unusually sensitive to expressions of approval and disapproval by parents and others (Baum 1994). Thus parents, teachers, and peers can rapidly, easily, and accurately shape our behavior compared to training other animals using more expensive material rewards and punishments. […] once children acquire language, parents and others can communicate new ideas quite economically. Our own contribution to the study of human behavior is a series of mathematical models in the Darwinian style of what we take to be the fundamental processes of cultural evolution”
“We make [the] claim that a dual gene-culture theory of some kind will be necessary to account for the evolution of human cooperative institutions. Understanding the evolution of contemporary human cooperation requires attention to two different time scales: First, a long period of evolution in the Pleistocene shaped the innate “social instincts” that underpin modern human behavior. During this period, much genetic change occurred as a result of humans living in groups with social institutions heavily influenced by culture, including cultural group selection […] On this timescale genes and culture coevolve, and cultural evolution is plausibly a leading rather than lagging partner in this process. We sometimes refer to the process as “culture-gene coevolution.” Then, only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant. […] Our hypothesis is premised on the idea that selection between groups plays a much more important role in shaping culturally transmitted variation than it does in shaping genetic variation. As a result, humans have lived in social environments characterized by high levels of cooperation for as long as culture has played an im portant role in human development. […] We believe that the human capacity to live in larger scale forms of tribal social organization evolved through a coevolutionary ratchet generated by the interaction of genes and culture. Rudimentary cooperative institutions favored genotypes that were better able to live in more cooperative groups. Those individuals best able to avoid punishment and acquire the locally-relevant norms were more likely to survive. At first, such populations would have been only slightly more cooperative than typical nonhuman primates. However, genetic changes, leading to moral emotions like shame, and a capacity to learn and internalize local practices, would allow the cultural evolution of more sophisticated institutions that in turn enlarged the scale of cooperation. These successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group rules.”
“Upper Paleolithic societies were the culmination of a long period of coevolutionary increases in a tendency toward tribal social life. We suppose that the resulting “tribal instincts” are something like principles in the Chomskian linguists’ “principles and parameters” view of language […] The innate principles furnish people with basic predispositions, emotional capacities, and social dispositions that are implemented in practice through highly variable cultural institutions, the parameters. People are innately prepared to act as members of tribes, but culture tells us how to recognize who belongs to our tribes, what schedules of aid, praise, and punishment are due to tribal fellows, and how the tribe is to deal with other tribes — allies, enemies, and clients. […] Contemporary human societies differ drastically from the societies in which our social instincts evolved. Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies were likely comparatively small, egalitarian, and lacking in powerful institutionalized leadership. […] To evolve largescale, complex social systems, cultural evolutionary processes, driven by cultural group selection, takes advantage of whatever support these instincts offer. […] cultural evolution must cope with a psychology evolved for life in quite different sorts of societies. Appropriate larger scale institutions must regulate the constant pressure from smaller-groups (coalitions, cabals, cliques), to subvert the large-group favoring rules. To do this cultural evolution often makes use of “work arounds” — mobilizing tribal instincts for new purposes. For example, large national and international (e.g. great religions) institutions develop ideologies of symbolically marked inclusion that often fairly successfully engage the tribal instincts on a much larger scale. Military and religious organizations (e.g., Catholic Church), for example, dress recruits in identical clothing (and haircuts) loaded with symbolic markings, and then subdivide them into small groups with whom they eat and engage in long-term repeated interaction. Such work-arounds are often awkward compromises […] In military and religious organizations, for example, excessive within-group loyalty often subverts higher-level goals […] Complex societies are, in effect, grand natural social-psychological experiments that stringently test the limits of our innate dispositions to cooperate.”
“Elements of coercive dominance are no doubt necessary to make complex societies work. Tribally legitimated self-help violence is a limited and expensive means of altruistic coercion. Complex human societies have to supplement the moralistic solidarity of tribal societies with formal police institutions. […] A common method of deepening and strengthening the hierarchy of command and control in complex societies is to construct a nested hierarchy of offices, using various mixtures of ascription and achievement principles to staff the offices. Each level of the hierarchy replicates the structure of a hunting and gathering band. A leader at any level interacts mainly with a few near-equals at the next level down in the system […] The hierarchical nesting of social units in complex societies gives rise to appreciable inefficiencies […] Leaders in complex societies must convey orders downward, not just seek consensus among their comrades. Devolving substantial leadership responsibility to sub-leaders far down the chain of command is necessary to create small-scale leaders with face-to-face legitimacy. However, it potentially generates great friction if lower-level leaders either come to have different objectives than the upper leader ship or are seen by followers as equally helpless pawns of remote leaders. Stratification often creates rigid boundaries so that natural leaders are denied promotion above a certain level, resulting in inefficient use of human resources and a fertile source of resentment to fuel social discontent. On the other hand, failure to properly articulate tribal scale units with more inclusive institutions is often highly pathological. Tribal societies often must live with chronic insecurity due to intertribal conflicts.”
“The high population density, division of labor, and improved communication made possible by the innovations of complex societies increased the scope for elaborating symbolic systems. The development of monumental architecture to serve mass ritual performances is one of the oldest archaeological markers of emerging complexity. Usually an established church or less formal ideological umbrella supports a complex society’s institutions. At the same time, complex societies extensively exploit the symbolic ingroup instinct to delimit a quite diverse array of culturally defined subgroups, within which a good deal of cooperation is routinely achieved. […] Many problems and conflicts revolve around symbolically marked groups in complex societies. Official dogmas often stultify desirable innovations and lead to bitter conflicts with heretics. Marked subgroups often have enough tribal cohesion to organize at the expense of the larger social system. […] Wherever groups of people interact routinely, they are liable to develop a tribal ethos. In stratified societies, powerful groups readily evolve self-justifying ideologies that buttress treatment of subordinate groups ranging from neglectful to atrocious.”
“Many individuals in modern societies feel themselves part of culturally labeled tribal-scale groups, such as local political party organizations, that have influence on the remotest leaders. In older complex societies, village councils, local notables, tribal chieftains, or religious leaders often hold courts open to humble petitioners. These local leaders in turn represent their communities to higher authorities. To obtain low-cost compliance with management decisions, ruling elites have to convince citizens that these decisions are in the interests of the larger community. As long as most individuals trust that existing institutions are reasonably legitimate and that any felt needs for reform are achievable by means of ordinary political activities, there is considerable scope for large scale collective social action. However, legitimate institutions, and trust of them, are the result of an evolutionary history and are neither easy to manage nor engineer. […] Without trust in institutions, conflict replaces cooperation along fault lines where trust breaks down. Empirically, the limits of the trusting community define the universe of easy cooperation […] At worst, trust does not extend outside family […] and potential for cooperation on a larger scale is almost entirely foregone.”
If I were the kind of person who were interested in political stuff, I might have decided to talk a bit about how the above remarks may relate to how to set up optimal policies aimed at maintaining cooperation and trust (perhaps subject to a few relevant constraints). Some ideas spring to mind, perhaps in relation to immigration policy in particular. But I’m not that kind of person, so I won’t talk about that here.
I figured it might be a good idea to cover some ‘related’ topics here, as I can’t be sure how much the people reading along here has read about this kind of stuff and what kind of background people have. Many of the remarks below are only tangentially related to the coverage above, but they’re arguably important if you want ‘a bigger picture’.
One thing to note is that in the context of this part:
“only about 10,000 years ago, the origins of agricultural subsistence systems laid the economic basis for revolutionary changes in the scale of social systems. The evidence suggests that genetic changes in the social instincts over the last 10,000 years are insignificant.”
…there are at least two important points to mention. One is that the 10.000 years number is ‘just a number’, and that there is no ‘one true number’ here – that number depends on geography and a lot of other stuff. The origins of agriculture are still somewhat murky, though we do know a lot. There are lots of problems archaeologists need to deal with when analyzing these sorts of things, like for instance the issue that locally the date for first observed/established case of agricultural adoption may not correlate well with the first actual adoption date, because we have this tendency to overlook the sort of evidence that has already evaded attention for thousands of years. Another problem is that the switch was often gradual and took a lot of time, and involved some trial and error. A related point is that switches in food procurement strategies likely happened at local levels in the far past – in some areas of the world it would seem likely that a strategy of mostly relying on a few select crops (‘agriculture’) in ‘good periods’ (perhaps lasting hundreds of years) and then relying more on a more diversified set of different crops as well as other complementary food sources (‘hunter-gathering’) in ‘bad periods’ may have been superior to a strategy of relying exclusively on one or the other, especially around the ‘border areas’ where people almost couldn’t make agriculture work at all due to climatic factors. It’s incidentally worth noting that “no single plant can provide the mix of amino acids that primates need for growth, so primates must either eat a variety of different plants to achieve an adequate amino-acid balance, or have a regular supplement of animal foods in their diet”, so the ‘rely-on-only-one-plant agricultural model and nothing else’ is not workable in practice and never was (quote from Sponheimer et al., p.361. Less extreme versions of dependence on a single crop is feasible if you can get the other stuff elsewhere, but it’s highly risky – ask e.g. the Irish. Despite how far we’ve come in other areas, we humans incidentally rely on quite few crops to supply a substantial part of the calories we need, making us somewhat vulnerable; for example more than one-fifth of all calories consumed by humans are derived from rice). Yet another problem is that ‘agriculture’ isn’t just ‘agriculture’ – people got better at this stuff over time and things like intensification and yield improvements were important, yet often difficult or frankly impossible to estimate, especially at the intensive margin. This means that ‘we think agriculture started here in 8900 BC’ may in some contexts not mean quite what you could be tempted to think it means.
But the above, and many related, issues aside, of course the main problem with a statement including words like ‘about 10,000 years ago’ is that the variation in when different people living different places ‘adopted agriculture’ (whatever that may mean) is astonishingly huge. Here are two illustrative passages from Scarre et al. – exhibit 1: “The site of Ohalo II in northern Israel, dated around 20,000 BC, provides a remarkable snapshot of lifeways in the Levant during the Last Glacial Maximum […] At Ohalo II […] we have evidence for the exploitation of a broad spectrum of plants and animals, the extensive use of storable plant foods, and the year-round occupation of a settlement. The starch traces found on the surfaces of grinding stones confirm that they were indeed used in the preparation of hard-seeded plant foods.” The site is a hunter-gatherer site, but these guys belonged to a sedentary hunter-gatherer settlement inhabited by people who were doing many, though not all, of the things we usually only associate with traditional farmers, illustrating how these sorts of categorizations sometimes get slightly complicated if you’re not very careful when you define your terms (and sometimes even if you do) – and perhaps illustrating that it makes sense to be cautious about which mental models of our hunter-gatherer forebears we apply. Either way more ‘proper’ farming communities, such as these, which started to pop up during the early Neolithic were themselves likely at least in part ‘the result’ of gradual changes that humans which came before them had had on their surrounding environments (especially local flora and fauna – in terms of the latter probably especially our impact on local megafauna) – the processes which eventually lead us to agriculture probably took a lot of time, though just how long into the past you need to look to get the full picture is an open question, and probably will remain so as the amount of evidence available to us is sparse (which impact had human activities taking place during the late Pleistocene had on the range and distribution of potential domesticables at the beginning of the Holocene? Such questions do not to me seem easy to answer, and they’re part of the story). Although agriculture in some areas of the world by now has a ‘shelf life’ of 10.000 years or more, in other areas of the world that ‘shelf life’ is much, much shorter – exhibit 2: “no agricultural colonization of Australia, the last completely hunter-gatherer continent to survive until European contact, ever occurred.”
Agriculture provided the economic foundation for achieving the scale of social complexity which humans have achieved. This is true, but an important point/caveat here is that the evolution of ‘(relatively) advanced cultural and societal complexity’ in prehistoric times was not always contingent upon agriculture; agriculture often did lead to societal complexity, but humans could rise in societal complexity and experience significant cultural evolution without it – there were sedentary populations of some size and organizational complexity living in communities without what we usually conceptualize as agriculture (viz farming or pastoralism), e.g. in areas well-endowed with natural resources such as those near major lakes or coasts full of fish. To take one example (again from Scarre et al.), “agriculture was not a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of chiefdoms in the Southeast [North America]” – another example would be the “longstanding “Maritime Hypothesis” […] which proposes […] that maritime resources sustained population growth and the rise of sedentary earthwork-building communities” along the Pacific coast of South America during prehistoric times. There were mound builders in pre-agricultural North America as well, see e.g. this and this.
It’s worth remembering when thinking about human societies which existed especially during transitional phases – which may include many different time periods, depending on which part of the world you’re looking at – where people were starting to use agriculture but perhaps hadn’t really gotten the hang of it yet, that hunter-gatherer groups occasionally simply outcompeted farmers at the local level because some places just plain aren’t very good places to engage in agriculture, meaning that the ‘cultural victory’ of agriculturalists was by no means universal or a given at the local level, even if it’s very easy to convince yourself otherwise if you don’t know very much about these aspects of human development. Sometimes new (‘cultural’) inventions, like irrigation systems, could turn the tide in situations and geographic localities where agricultural food procurement strategies were at a disadvantage, but occasionally even that wasn’t enough.
Food production practices are/were key to societal complexity, because in order to get complexity you need to produce enough ‘excess food’ for some people to be free to engage themselves in non-food-production/procuring-activities, but another related point is that how to actually categorize and delineate various prehistoric food production practices is not always completely obvious. Food production undertaken by humans can take on multiple forms, and sometimes an ‘agriculture’ vs ‘hunter-gatherers’ dichotomic conceptualization of the issues may make you overlook important details due to ‘misclassification’ or similar problems; to take a couple of examples, some prehistoric sedentary societies based on fishing were as mentioned more or less stable food producing societies, and on a different note the cultural practices of (mobile) pastoralist societies often shared some social dimensions with hunter-gatherer societies that e.g. sedentary rice farming societies did not. Worth keeping in mind in this context is also that present-day hunter-gatherer societies still in existence often do not well reflect the cultural aspects of hunter-gatherer societies which existed in the far past, meaning that you need to be very careful about which inferences you make and what you base them on.
An aspect really important to keep in mind in general when thinking about the Holocene ‘post-agricultural period’ of human development is that the cultural development which took place in agricultural societies did not take place in a vacuum. Agriculturalists interacted with hunter-gatherers, farmers interacted with pastoralists, different e.g. geographic (mountains, seas) and biological constraints (malaria, horses) shaped human development in all kinds of ways. Boyd and Richerson do talk about this in the book, but I figured I should as well in this post. One thing to note is that in some areas agricultural practices spread much faster than in others for reasons having nothing to do with ‘the type’ of people who were doing these things, for example due to reasons of physical geography or other environmental constraints or the lack of such, and both the speed and manner of adoption likely had important (and varied) cultural ramifications. These things had genetic ramifications as well; areas where agricultural spread was particularly easy saw population growth other areas did not. Climate and climatic variation post-adoption incidentally naturally had important cultural ramifications as well – for example looking over the (pre)history of pre-colonial South America, it’s obvious that climate here was a key parameter with a huge impact on ‘the rise and fall of civilizations’.
There were multiple ways for agriculture to spread, from pure displacement to pure local adoption, as well as any combination in between, and how it proceeded varied with geography and probably a lot of other stuff as well. Some places and times the optimal type of agriculture was variable over time; which didn’t just mean that it made sense for farming societies to diversify and rely on more than one crop with different responses to e.g. drought, but also that climate change sometimes caused people to switch away from farming and towards pastoralism in bad periods – a good example of the latter is Peru during the Late Intermediate Period, where it is clear that “intensification of pastoralism was an important respone to drought” (see Moseley, p.246). Aspects such as climate have certainly had various important cultural as well as genetic impacts around the globe, e.g. on cultural transmission patterns at the regional level even during the ‘post-agricultural’ period. I mentioned interaction patterns – themselves a result of cultural dynamics, but also a driver of them – between sedentary farming societies and more mobile hunter-gatherers or pastoralists above, and perhaps I should say a little more about this kind of stuff because people may not be clear on precisely what I’m getting at there. It seems clear that in some areas division of labour dynamics played an important role in explaining and shaping cultural evolution; for a great account of these aspects of cultural dynamics and evolution in mountainous terrains and their surrounding areas, I again refer to Moseley’s account here. Inhabitants of sedentary farming societies didn’t move around very much, so things which were far away from them were things they’d often be willing to trade with more mobile human groupings. From one point of view you have a type of (modified) core-periphery model where the people from the core produced ‘excess’ food, and/or things which the people living in the core area who did not have to work on food procurement could come up with, which they then traded for other stuff, e.g. various natural resources located elsewhere (metals and wood are classic examples), with people who lived on the periphery. People looking at these things today without knowing anything about how such interaction patterns looked like may, I think, have a tendency to think of mobile hunter-gatherer groups as the morons who were left behind in this story and the pastoralists as more ‘primitive’ than the farmers, but I don’t really think that’s necessarily how it was – sometimes quite neat systems of exchange benefited both groups and were arguably by themselves important drivers of ‘cultural progress’, in the sense that they enabled and facilitated increased social complexity in the societies engaged in such systems. Of course peaceful interaction patterns were not the only ones which were explored.
“Brain tissue is quite expensive. All else equal, selection will favor the stupidest possible creatures.”
I really liked that quote. Here’s a related one from the book:
“On the cost side, selection will favor as small a nervous system as possible. If our hypothesis is correct, animals with complex cognition foot the cost of a large brain by adapting more swiftly and accurately to variable environments.”
This post doesn’t really deal in much more detail with the observations above, I just liked those quotes and they didn’t really fit in with the rest of the coverage, though I could probably have put them in there somewhere. Before moving on to the main coverage I should note that it would make a lot of sense for people who read this post to read my first post about the book before reading this one. If you’ve already done so, do carry on.
After I’d read the first couple hundred pages I was a bit exhausted, and I’ve taken a break from this book for a while; as I pointed out on goodreads when I started, “I’m far from certain I’ll manage to get through this one in one go.” Yesterday I decided to pick up the book again, and fortunately the next few chapters seem less technical than the ones that had me putting the book away for a while.
The book is really nice, but it feels hard for me to blog because of the technical nature of the coverage (much of this stuff is really just applied game theory). Most chapters will deal with a specific model and talk about the model results, and unless I actually tell you all about what the models are doing and which assumptions are made (i.e., basically repost the entire book here) a lot of critical details will be left out – there are a lot of caveats and nuances, and not including them in the coverage might give people the wrong idea about what’s going on in the book. Sometimes a complex model is compared to a simple model in a chapter and the complex model is the more interesting one; in those cases you may need to cover the simple model as well for it to make sense to talk about the details of the complex model, and we’re back to ‘it’s hard to exclude anything’. A general ‘problem’ with this book in terms of these things – which is of course properly to be considered a strength – is that there aren’t really that many pages with fluffy stuff you can just leave out. Fortunately they occasionally draw conclusions from the models and try to give a big-picture account of what’s going on, and I’ve disproportionately quoted from those passages in the post below. I’ve left a lot of details out, but there was no alternative to doing that. A lot of crucial context which I’ve not realized is missing is probably missing anyway – do ask questions if something is unclear here.
“Human brains […] are adapted to life in small-scale hunting and gathering societies of the Pleistocene. They will guide behavior within such societies with considerable precision, but behave unpredictably in other situations. […] Learning devices will be favored only when environments are variable in time or space in difficult to predict ways. Social learning is a device for multiplying the power of individual learning. […] Social learning can economize on the trial and error part of learning. […] Selection will favor individual learners who add social learning [‘learn from others, e.g. by imitating them‘] to their repertoire so long as copying is fairly accurate and the extra overhead cost of the capacity to copy is not too high. In some circumstances, the models suggest that social learning will be quite important relative to individual learning. It can be a great advantage compared to a system that relies on genes only to transmit information and individual learning to adapt to the variation. Selection will also favor heuristics that bias social learning in adaptive directions. When the behavior of models [‘people you might copy’] is variable, individuals who try to choose the best model by using simple heuristics like “copy dominants” or “go with the majority,” or by using complex cognitive analyses, are more likely to do well than those who blindly copy. Contrarily, if it is easy for individuals to learn the right thing to do by themselves, or if environments vary little, then social learning is of no utility.”
“We believe that the lessons of [the] model [they just talked about] are robust. It formalizes three basic assumptions:
1. The environment varies.
2. Cues about the environment are imperfect, so individuals make errors.
3. Imitation increases the accuracy (or reduces the cost) of learning.
We have analyzed several models that incorporate these assumptions but differ in other features. All of these models lead to the same qualitative conclusion: when learning is difficult and environments do not change too fast, most individuals imitate at evolutionary equilibrium. At that equilibrium, an optimally imitating population is better off, on average, than a population that does not imitate. […] for something to be a norm, there has to be a conformist element. People must agree on the appropriate behavior and disapprove of others who do not behave appropriately. We […] show that individuals who respond to such disapproval by conforming to the social norm are more likely to acquire the best behavior. […] as the tendency to conform increases, so does the equilibrium amount of imitation. […] all conditions that lead a substantial fraction of the population to rely on imitation also lead to very strong conformity. […] a tendency to conform increases the number of people who follow social norms and decreases the numbers who think for themselves.”
“Human populations are richly subdivided into groups marked by seemingly arbitrary symbolic traits, including distinctive styles of dress, cuisine, or dialect. Such symbolically marked groups often have distinctive moral codes and norms of behavior, and sometimes exhibit economic specialization. […] The following two chapters explore the idea that symbolically marked groups arise and are maintained because dress, dialect, and other markers allow people to identify in-group members. In chapter 6, we analyze a model that assumes that identifying in-group members is useful because it allows selective imitation. Rapid cultural adaption makes the local population a valuable source of information about what is adaptive in the local environment. Individuals are well advised to imitate locals and avoid learning from immigrants […] studies like those of Fredrik Barth […] suggest that contemporary ethnic groups often occupy different ecological niches. […] In chapter 7, we […] study a model in which markers allow selective social interaction. […] These models have several interesting and, at least to us, less-than-obvious properties. First, the same nonrandom interaction that makes markers useful also creates and maintains variation in symbolic marker traits as an unintended by-product. Nonrandom interaction acts to increase correlation between arbitrary markers and locally adaptive behaviors. This, in turn, makes markers more useful, setting up a positive feedback process that can amplify small differences in markers between groups. […] once groups have become sharply marked, the feedback process is sufficient by itself to maintain group marking even if groups are perfectly mixed and there is no population structure other than that caused by the markers. […] processes closely related to those modeled here can lead to the “runaway” evolution of marker and preference traits, which have no adaptive or functional explanation […] It is easy to imagine that the adaptive uses of cultural markers are common enough so that selection on genes maintains a cognitive capacity to use them despite the runaway process carrying some to maladaptive extremes. We are convinced that complexities of this sort are a pervasive feature of the coevolutionary process that links genes and culture. If this idea is correct, any attempt to reduce the problems of human evolution to binary choices between sociobiological and cultural explanations is bound to fail.”
“Studies of the diffusion of innovations […] suggest that people often use two simple rules to increase the likelihood that they acquire locally adaptive beliefs by imitation. The chance that individual A will adopt an innovation modeled by individual B [i.e., ‘do as B does’] often seems to depend upon (1) how successful B is, and (2) the similarity of A and B.”
“Many anthropologists believe that people follow the social norms of their society without much thought. According to this view, human behavior is mainly the result of social norms and rarely the result of considered decisions. […] Many anthropologists also believe that social norms lead to adaptive behaviors; by following norms, people can behave sensibly without having to understand why they do what they do. […] Norms will change behavior only if they prescribe behavior that differs from what people would do in the absence of norms. […] By this notion, people obey norms because they are rewarded by others if they do and punished if they do not. As long as the rewards and punishments are sufficiently large, norms can stabilize a vast range of different behaviors.”
One thing to note both in relation to the paragraph above and to the passage quoted below is that there’s a big conceptual difference between strategies which punish defection strategies by withholding future cooperation, and strategies which ‘actively’ punish defectors (presumably e.g. by beating them up, killing them…). Perhaps one way to conceptualize the difference between the two types of strategies is to think of the former set of strategies as a collection of strategies where punished individuals are limited to a payoff of 0, whereas punished individuals in the latter context might experience (unbounded?) negative payoffs as well. Reciprocating strategies, where you cooperate when others do and sanction defection with non-cooperation in the future, are what Boyd and Richerson look at first, and it turns out that such strategies actually don’t do very well in large groups, in the sense that it seems implausible that such strategies in their models on their own would support cooperative equilibria when n is large, which is the motivation for looking at actual ‘punishment strategies’ that go a bit further than that. A problem with punishment strategies is that they’re often (but not always) altruistic in the sense that if punishment works by making defectors switch to ‘cooperate’ in future periods and it’s costly for an individual to punish someone, then punishing someone is quite likely to mostly benefit other people (especially as n grows) while the person doing the punishing is the one incurring the cost – punishment is a public good. So people may decide to become ‘reluctant punishers’ that let the others do the punishing, and if enough people go that route these equilibria become unstable (this is a problem termed ‘the problem of second-order cooperation’ – you can defect at any stage in the game, and in this particular case it’s a two-stage game where you can either defect from the start, or you defect at the second stage and refuse to punish those that defected during the first period). If n is small, punishment strategies may not necessarily be altruistic – you may meet and interact with the guy enough times in the future for it to make sense to punish him now – and if the cost of punishment is small compared to the benefits from cooperation that will of course also help support equilibria of that nature. A general thing to note here, which is perhaps not made perfectly clear in the stuff above, is that finding out how ‘cooperative equilibria’ of one kind or another may come about and under which conditions they’re stable is really a big part of understanding what culture is all about and how it works, when you look at it from a certain point of view – it’s puzzling that humans cooperate with other humans to the extent that they do, and as people who’ve done theoretical work on this stuff have found out over the years, it’s actually not at all easy to figure out why they (we) do that. It’s certainly a lot more complicated than people who don’t know anything about such topics presumably think it is.
I really liked the stuff they had on moralistic strategies, a subset of the punishment strategies analyzed in chapter 9, and I’ve quoted from this below:
“Moralistic strategies [are] strategies that punish defectors, individuals who do not punish noncooperators, and individuals who do not punish nonpunishers […] moralistic strategies can cause any individually costly behavior to be evolutionarily stable, whether or not it creates a group benefit. Once enough individuals are prepared to punish any behavior, even the most absurd, and to punish those who do not punish, then everyone is best off conforming to the norm. Moralistic strategies are a potential mechanism for stabilizing a wide range of behaviors. […] moralistic punishment is inherently diversifying in the sense that many different behaviors may be stabilized in exactly the same environment. It may also provide the basis for stable among-group variation. […] In the model studied here, punishers collect private benefit by inducing cooperation in their group that compensates them for punishing, while providing a public good for reluctant cooperators. There are often polymorphic equilibria in which punishers are relatively rare, generating a simple political division of labor […] This finding invites study of further punishment strategies. Consider, for example, strategies that punish but do not cooperate. Such individuals might be able to coerce more reluctant cooperators than cooperator-punishers and therefore support cooperation in still larger groups.”
That chapter has a lot more details about those things. Anyway, behavioural strategies that look terribly maladaptive ‘from the outside’ (and/or may in fact be terribly maladaptive (…at the group level) – do note that these two do not necessarily overlap) may become fixed in a population even so, and such equilibria, once reached, may be very hard to break. This isn’t exactly an uplifting story, but of course if you’ve had a look around the world this shouldn’t be news. As mentioned, it’s very much worth having in mind that a strategy which outsiders might think is really quite awful, because it leads to behaviours the outsiders don’t like, may still be highly adaptive – the adaptiveness of a behavioural strategy set and whether said strategy set gives you a good feeling in your stomach has got nothing to do with each other, and there’s no Eternal Law of Progress, whatever that latter word might mean, guiding which strategy sets ‘win’.
(Smbc). The book is not really a book about economics, but I haven’t come across a similar comic with the words ‘mathematical anthropology’, or something along those lines, at the bottom and I think it’s close enough (besides I really love that cartoon).
I have talked about the book before on more than one occasion, as some of Boyd and Richerson’s results/ideas tend to naturally pop up in a lot of contexts when one is reading e.g. anthropology texts – and despite not having read the book I’ve been familiar with some of the ideas. I’ve considered it to be ‘a book I ought to read at some point’ for quite a while. I think Razib Khan said nice things about it at one point; given that I really liked a few of the other books he’s recommended I think that was what originally made me focus in on the book. I have long believed I would find the topic to be interesting as well as the suggested approach to dealing with the topic sensible; I have also, however, believed for a long time that the book would be a lot of work, which is part of what has kept me back.
I’ve now read enough, I think, to at least have an impression of what it’s about. It is, as expected, a technical book – there are quite a few remarks along these lines in the book:
“While we have not been able to solve (12) analytically, it is easy to solve numerically […] Because equation (13) is quite complex, we have not been able to derive an analytical expression for these equilibrium frequencies. However, it follows from the symmetry of the model that there is a stable symmetric equilibrium […] A more rigorous local stability analysis of the complete set of recursions supports the heuristic argument just given. Consider the set of i+1 difference equations where Δpj(j=0,1,…,i; see the Appendix) provides the dynamics of the behavioral traits at each stage. The cooperative equilibrium point […] is stable under the two distinct conditions …”
Someone ‘like me’ will not need to look up a lot of math-related stuff in order to understand the coverage in this book – the math is not that hard, it’s just that in some of the chapters there’s quite a lot of it. Then again if you’ve never seen a symmetry argument or people talking about deriving numerical solutions to troublesome analytical expressions (like the stuff above) before, and/or if you’ve never heard of eigenvalues or perhaps don’t have a good grasp of concepts like model equilibria or evolutionarily stable strategies, you’ll probably have some trouble along the way. One thing that ‘helps’ quite a bit in this context is that the math never seems superfluous; you get the clear impression that the authors did not add math in order to show how smart they are, but that they rather did it to promote and encourage a more systematic (…methodologically valid?) approach to this area of research. As they argue in the introduction:
“We think the way to make cultural explanations “hard” enough to enter into principled debates is to use Darwinian methods to analyze cultural evolution […] applying the evolutionary biologists’ concepts and methods to the study of culture […] Cultural evolution is rooted in the psychology of individuals, but it also creates population-level consequences. Keeping these two balls in the air is a job for mathematics; unaided reasoning is completely untrustworthy in such domains.”
I like their approach and I like the book so far. It has a lot of useful angles in terms of how to think about cultural stuff; variables, mechanisms, and tradeoffs.
I really liked the ‘Introduction’ chapter and before going any further I think I should a add a few (additional) remarks from that part of the book:
“People in culturally distinct groups behave differently mostly because they have acquired different beliefs, preferences, and skills, and these differences persist through time because the people of one generation acquire their beliefs and attitudes from those around them. To understand how cultures change, we set up an accounting system that describes how cultural variants are distributed in the population and how various processes, some psychological, others social and ecological, cause some variants to spread and others to decline. The processes that cause such cultural change arise in the everyday lives of individuals as people acquire and use cultural information. Some values are more appealing […] Some skills are easy to learn […] Some beliefs cause people to be more likely to be imitated […] We want to explain how these processes, repeated generation after generation, account for observed patterns of cultural variation.”
“Culture completely changes the way that human evolution works, but not because culture is learned. Rather, the capital fact is that human-style social learning creates a novel evolutionary trade-off. Social learning allows human populations to accumulate reservoirs of adaptive information over many generations, leading to the cumulative cultural evolution of highly adaptive behaviors and technology. Because this process is much faster than genetic evolution, it allows human populations to evolve (culturally) adaptions to local environments – kayaks in the arctic and blowguns in the Amazon […] To get the benefits of social learning, humans have to be credulous, for the most part accepting the ways that they observe in their society as sensible and proper, but such credulity opens human minds to the spread of maladaptive beliefs. The problem is one of information costs. The advantage of culture is that individuals don’t have to invent everything for themselves. We get adaptions like kayaks and blowguns on the cheap. The trouble is that a greed for such easy adaptive traditions easily leads to perpetuating maladaptions that somehow arise. Even though the capacities that give rise to culture and shape its content must be (or at least have been) adaptive on average, the behavior observed in any particular society at any particular time may reflect evolved maladaptions. Empirical evidence for the predicted maladaptions are not hard to find. […] The spread of such maladaptive ideas is a predictable by-product of cultural transmission.”
“Selection acting on culture is an ultimate cause of human behavior just like natural selection acting on genes. In several of the chapters in part III we argue that much cultural variation exists at the group level. Different human groups have different norms and values, and the cultural transmission of these traits can cause such differences to persist for long periods. The norms and values that predominate in a group plausibly affect the probability that the group is successful, whether it survives, and whether it expands.”
At the time the authors wrote the book they’d been working on this stuff for 30 years. The book is a collection of articles they’ve written over the years (not always together), so naturally some of the stuff – I don’t know how much as I have not looked for it – is available elsewhere; if you don’t want to read the entire book but would like to know a little more about the topic, you can probably find some of the stuff covered here in the book via google scholar; for example chapter 2 (‘Why Does Culture Increase Human Adaptability?’) in the book is as far as I can tell simply a reprint of this paper (pdf) – go have a look if you want to know what the book is like. Here’s chapter 10 (‘Why People Punish Defectors – Weak Conformist Transmission can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas’ (pdf)). In the first case they put all the math in the back; as illustrated in the second link they don’t always do that. I’d rather link to those papers than cover them in detail here – go have a look if you’re curious.
The coverage in the book is really nice so far, and if the quality of the material does not drop later on I’ll certainly feel tempted to give it five stars.
Exam’s getting close – expect no further updates until Monday or Tuesday. Some random stuff of interest from the bookmarks:
i. First a very neat link: The Cost-Effectiveness Analysis Registry. It’s exactly what it says on the tin; a registry with information about cost-effectiveness stuff.
I really like the utility weight feature. And of course I was curious about my own disease so I looked up T1DM. According to the search I did, a utility weight estimate for ‘Diabetes with no complications’ is reported to be 0.757. One way to think about this is to say that that person’s life is about three-quarters as good as a healthy person’s life. Another way to think about it is that if person X gets type 1 diabetes during, say, the first year of life (pretty close to my situation), the lifetime utility loss that individual will incur from that diagnosis corresponds to losing two decades of his/her life (i.e. ‘die at the age of 56 instead of at the age of 75’, assuming ‘equivalent’ age-related (and other) utility variation in the two populations). With complications the utility weights of course drop further; diabetes + retinopathy yields a weight of 0.61, and nephropathy + heart disease equals 0.516 (‘his life is only half as good as that of a healthy person’). Of course one should have in mind that the utility contribution from complications impact fewer years of life because people with heart disease or kidney failure have a tendency to die at faster rates than people who do not suffer from these complications (certainly part of why the utility weights are lower…), and some people live many years without complications.
I’d say that if one wants a brief overview of how ‘severe’ a disease is thought to be the utility weight estimates provided at the site are actually really nice tools, but do have in mind that a lot of assumptions go into making such estimates, and there are lots of differences in treatment regimes and/or differences in disease impacts e.g. when you make cross-country comparisons (most estimates are not ‘globally valid’, it’s safe to say). ‘Proper’ utility weights are/ought to be highly heterogenous across subgroups, and will in many cases (not just when it comes to diabetes) be time-dependent, among other things. Individual variation is huge. In a way this is all a bit ‘quick and dirty’, but it’s better than nothing; either way it’s probably a good idea to check out the actual studies if you want more than just a quick estimate. Of course the site has as already mentioned stuff other than utility weight estimates – if you want to know if a given health intervention is likely to be cost-effective this also seems like a great place to start. (And on a related note, if you know nothing about cost-effectiveness analysis a good place to start would be to read this book, or at least the first half of it.)
ii. Being right or being happy: pilot study; a ‘study’ from the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal. I’m sure some of you have already read this, but others may not have. Here’s the introduction (I should note that it’s not a very long ‘article’):
“Three of the authors are general practitioners who see many patients and couples who lead unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy. Mathieu encourages her psychotherapy clients “to try to live in the gray. There are a million shades of gray” (although a recent erotic novel suggests there are only 50) “on the spectrum of white to black, and each provides a much richer telling of a story that is hardly ever as clear as this or that. So, when we looked a bit more closely, we saw that ‘right versus happy’ was not so much about getting crowned the winner or loser, a genius or fool; it was more about flawed thinking and a desire to want to feel being in control.”1 This might be the first study to systematically assess whether it is better to be right than happy; a Medline search in May 2013 found no similar articles. Our null hypothesis was that it is better to be right than happy.”
I’m skeptical about the results…
iii. Who did whom? A field guide to Pleistocene hookups, by John Hawks.
iv. At this point I’m roughly one-third of the way towards reaching the level of ‘walking dictionary’ on vocabulary.com (give it another month or two…). Many of the roughly 1700 words I’ve supposedly mastered on the site I already knew – considering how little I’ve focused on this stuff over the years, I’m actually quite surprised now how many words I ‘sort of know, but didn’t know that I knew’. On the other hand there have also been quite a few words I’ve never seen before, and some words I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. A funny thing about language, which I haven’t really thought about, is that like in the case of other areas of knowledge you’ll often not ever actually be made aware of the fact that your vocabulary (/knowledge) is limited unless you make an effort of actively seeking out words (facts) you don’t know; if you don’t know that there’s a word for X, you’ll often never be made aware that you didn’t know – especially if other people don’t know that word either. The ‘hey, I’m familiar with this concept but I didn’t know it actually had a name…’-experience a site like this will occasionally provide is really nice. Anyway, below a few words I’ve picked up along the way:
Eleemosynary (of, relating to, or supported by charity; charitable).
Martinet (a person who is very strict and demands obedience from others; a strict disciplinarian; a person who stresses a rigid adherence to the details of forms and methods).
Ratiocination (the process of exact thinking: reasoning; a reasoned train of thought).
Sagaciousness (the ability to understand inner qualities or relationships; having or showing acute mental discernment and keen practical sense; shrewd).
Sententious (having or expessing strong opinions about what people should and should not do; given to or abounding in aphoristic expression/excessive moralizing; terse, aphoristic, or moralistic in expression).
Solecism (an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order; a breach of etiquette or decorum).
Echolalia ((psychiatry) mechanical and meaningless repetition of the words of another person; an infant’s repetition of sounds uttered by others).
Ingenuous (lacking in sophistication or worldliness; innocent and unsuspecting).
Ineluctable (not to be avoided, changed, or resisted; inevitable).
Supererogatory (more than is needed, desired, or required; superfluous).
Note that even if you’re an incorrigible reprobate who hates other people and don’t really want to learn new stuff, a larger vocabulary will be something you can make good use of; a larger vocabulary makes it a lot easier to surreptiously insult people. Rather than calling the overweight woman in front of you fat, you can just call her embonpoint. And instead of calling the moron next to you in the bar an alcoholic, you can just say that he’s bibulous…
This is awesome! (And actually that hypothesis probably sounds more plausible than at least some of the ‘evolutionary theories’ I’ve seen presented (in earnest) in the past…)
Your turn – what have you been doing? Comments to the stuff above? Any new readers out there who’d like to tell us a bit about themselves? Any good books or links I should read (after my exam)?