Monthly Archives: October 2010

East/West Rearing Styles

I’ve been talking a lot lately about my hypothesis that rich/modern values differ from poor/traditional values in the way that foragers’ values differed from farmers’.  But what about the other main dimension of value variation, what I called “east” vs. “west”?  Last november I speculated:

The other factor … stretch[es] from [East] Russia to the [West] USA. But what is the essence of that factor? … [Perhaps] an “inward” vs. “outward” focus … when the priority is making families and personal relations work well … [vs.] when the priority is larger community health and threats. … [Western] cultures where invasion was less an issue tended to evolve family oriented values, while … [Eastern others] focused more on larger community solidarity.

But what could be a more proximate cause of a family vs. community focus?  Reading the good 1995 book The Forager Spectrum, I found an idea:

There are two basic forms of enculturation, parental and peer group. In the first form, a child’s primary caretaker is its parents, especially the mother.  The mother is a predictable and consistent provider of resources, beginning obviously with breast milk, but including affection, attention, and protection.  The child learns that desirable things, such as good, are held by one or two individuals. As a child grows and can fend more and more for itself, its parents become less giving.  Though its demands may become more insistent, the child is eventually cut off by its parents. … This may lead the child to become more assertive and independent. … Boys appear to de-emphasize male-male competition and focus more on manipulation of the natural world through technology.  Additionally where children learn their culture primarily from their parents, there may be a large amount of intracultural variation in beliefs, behaviors, and so on. …

In the case of peer rearing, at about two years of age a child is placed in the care of an older sibling (often an older sister) and becomes a member of an age group. The peer group becomes the child’s primary locus of social interaction.  Status and power differences between its members, however, are not as larger as between a child and its parents.  As the children move along a village’s residences, children learn that there are many sources of food and desirables other than their parents.  Children raised in a peer group learn to network and learn that resources can be acquired by manipulating social relations.  “What is important is who the individual knows, who these people are, what they have, and how they are disposed toward the child.” … There could be less intracultural variation among adults who were peer-reared than among adults who were parent-reared. …

It is likely that parental versus peer-group rearing has a differential effect on girls and boys.  In societies where children are peer-rearred, girls may more frequently be the assigned caretakers of younger children than boys, and this has been identified as a factor that contributes to gender differences in behavior and attitudes favoring nurturance, prosocial behaviors, and restricted spatial range on the part of girls.  In such societies fathers may be away from children for extended periods of time.  It has been suggested that in families where the father is absent, boys tend to develop poor attitudes toward females, to be aggressive and competitive toward other males and, when grown, to give little attention to their offspring. … Peer-reared girls show expression of sexual interest and assumption of sexual activity early in life, while also showing negative attitudes toward males and a poor ability to establish long term relationships with a male.  [pp154-6]

Perhaps in central “east” regions, repeated invasions during the farmer era selected out of pre-existing variation for cultures with more of a peer-group style of kid-rearing, while peripheral “west” regions tended to select for more of a parental style.

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Practical Med Skepticism

The Atlantic has a great med article:

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors—to a striking extent—still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science.

I was glad they illustrated how this skepticism informs the practice of a clinician on Ioannidis’ team:

I prod a bit, and she confesses she plans to do her own exam. She needs to be circumspect, though, so she won’t appear to be second-guessing the other doctors. Tatsioni doesn’t so much fear that someone will carve out the man’s healthy appendix. Rather, she’s concerned that, like many patients, he’ll end up with prescriptions for multiple drugs that will do little to help him, and may well harm him. “Usually what happens is that the doctor will ask for a suite of biochemical tests—liver fat, pancreas function, and so on,” she tells me. “The tests could turn up something, but they’re probably irrelevant. Just having a good talk with the patient and getting a close history is much more likely to tell me what’s wrong.” Of course, the doctors have all been trained to order these tests, she notes, and doing so is a lot quicker than a long bedside chat. They’re also trained to ply the patient with whatever drugs might help whack any errant test numbers back into line. What they’re not trained to do is to go back and look at the research papers that helped make these drugs the standard of care. “When you look the papers up, you often find the drugs didn’t even work better than a placebo. And no one tested how they worked in combination with the other drugs,” she says. “Just taking the patient off everything can improve their health right away.” But not only is checking out the research another time-consuming task, patients often don’t even like it when they’re taken off their drugs, she explains; they find their prescriptions reassuring.

Yes, get a second opinion, and set a higher standard for being convinced to apply any particular treatment in any particular context.  And your major obstacle will be resistance from those comforted by “doing something.”

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Thresholds Hurt Oddballs

To estimate the quality of something using a bunch of noisy clues, people often set minimum “deal-breaker” thresholds for each clue, and then reject candidates who fall below any threshold. For example, in dating:

My 20-year-old daughter informed me that she recently dumped a guy because when she asked him the meaning of a word, he said, “Are you serious?”  “That was it. It’s like a huge test for me. … It told me he felt intellectually superior to me,” explained Jenna. … Whoa, give the guy a break, I thought. …

[In] “Love and the Litmus Test,” an article that appeared here 28 years ago [I] essentially justified the kind of subjective, quick and seemingly irrational judgment that Jenna had made. … An “insignificant gesture, an offhand comment” or a plaid sports coat can alter destiny. … For my daughters, ineptitude in the kitchen is almost a deal-breaker. … “The check shouldn’t even hit the table if you’re out to dinner — he should grab it out of the waitress’s hand. … If a guy ever picks up a phone during a meal, I would never talk to him again. …  Irrelevant [facebook] wall posts tells me the guy has too much time on his hands. (more)

Now consider the following two dimensional space, where clues are linear correlates of a linear quality.

thresholdbiasRed lines A,B,C show three different clue cutoffs, and the blue region shows the points that satisfy all three cutoffs. If we consider directions perpendicular to the better vs. worse quality axis, we can see that even though being “odd“, i.e., away from the central quality axis, does not hurt quality, the deal-breaker approach to selecting candidates is biased against odd candidates. Plain, i.e., not odd, candidates are acceptable even when relatively low in quality.

In general, instead of letting each noisy clue be a potential deal-breaker, it is usually better to weigh your clues together (e.g., via a weighted average).

So why do some women claim that they combine clues via deal-breaker thresholds instead of via weighing clues? My guess: such women are bragging about their selectivity in a way that is relatively verifiable. It would be harder to verify a claim that they set a high threshold on a complex weighing of many factors.

The same bias applies to regulations, which typically consist of a set of minimal requirements along many different dimensions. Such regulations are easier to express, monitor, and prosecute, but as with dating they are also biased against odd people and ventures. Count this as another way to see that regulation discourages innovation.

Thanks to Alex for talking this through with me.

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Medicine is Sacred

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a federal statute that was signed into law in the United States by President Barack Obama on March 23, 2010. Along with the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (signed into law on March 30, 2010), the Act is the product of the health care reform agenda of the Democratic 111th Congress and the Obama administration. (more)

Better late than never, the New England Journal of Medicine:

The recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) created a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to conduct comparative-effectiveness research (CER) but prohibited this institute from developing or using cost-per-QALY thresholds. ,… The ACA’s language might be seen as symptomatic of the legislation’s aversion to policies that critics might see as enacting “big-government” health care or “death panels.” … The ACA … states that the findings of PCORI-sponsored research cannot be construed as mandates for practice guidelines, coverage recommendations, payment, or policy recommendations. … The antagonism toward cost-per-QALY comparisons also suggests a bit of magical thinking — the notion that the country can avoid the difficult trade-offs that cost-utility analysis helps to illuminate. It pretends that we can avert our eyes from such choices, and it kicks the can of cost-consciousness farther down the road. It represents another example of our country’s avoidance of unpleasant truths about our resource constraints. (more)

Yup.  To the US public, medicine is a sacred; tradeoffs are taboo:

When people receive monetary offers for relinquishing a sacred value, they display a particularly striking irrationality. Not only are people unwilling to compromise sacred values for money—contrary to classic economic theory’s assumption that financial incentives motivate behavior—but the inclusion of money in an offer produces a backfire effect such that people become even less likely to give up their sacred values compared to when an offer does not include money.

Doesn’t sound promising for controlling costs, does it?

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How Bonded Were Pairs?

As I said yesterday, the book Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality takes a standard view on human promiscuity:

Humans have been selected to pair bond, express mutual mate choice, and biparentally care for offspring. In these respects we appear to have diverged substantially from our closest phylogenetic relatives. [72] … Though in many species of nonhuman primates mating with multiple males to reduce their maltreatment of offspring has importantly selected for extended female sexuality, women’s extended sexuality probably does not significantly reflect this function. [77]

But in the range from near-perfect monogamy to chimp/bonobo style promiscuity, where do they think humans lie? Most of the book talks about how the signs of various effects suggest our ancestors had some “extra-pair mating,” but their only concrete indication of magnitudes is to describe the Hadza:

Hadza men spend much more time hunting large game than returns to their families warrant, which implies that male Hadza foragers do not … maximize gains through parental investment. So long as opportunities for mating with women other than currently primary partners are available to men … men should not be expected to allocate foraging time … [for] the fitness benefits of parental effort alone. …

Overall married Hadza women produce as many calories as do married Hadza men. … Women whose youngest children are 3 years of age or younger harvest about one-third fewer calories. And women with infants 1 year of age or younger harvest only about half as much. … Their husbands make up for the shortfall. [67]

So a Hadza man hunts big game to look sexy, even though that retrieves less food. Except that when a women he has sex with has a kid he thinks is his, he’ll gather more but less-sexy food, to give this woman ~1/2 of her food for one year, ~1/4 for the next two years, and declining amounts thereafter.

Now, yes, this may be more pair-bonding than in chimps or bonobos. But it is also far less than the farmer ideal of life-long monogamy!  Many men today reluctant to marry for life would be ok with this level of commitment. And of course we don’t know if Hadza levels of pair bonding were typical of our distant ancestors.

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Sex At Dawn Is Right

I like to think of myself as courageously seeking out important truths, however uncomfortable. But like most would-be-courageous folk, I don’t really know what I want until I get it. I was excited to read the contrarian Sex at Dawn, which suggests sexual promiscuity is our forager heritage. But that pretty sparkler was really a grenade – its uncomfortable truths shook me to my core.

To hear a different view, immediately afterward I read Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality [EBoHFS], which supports a standard view of foragers as long-term pair-bonders. By comparison, EBoHFS is more academic: dry, clinical, verbose, and careful to define terms and consider many possibilities. It reviews an immense number of studies, and appears to takes a cautious middle ground.

Sex at Dawn, in contrast, frustrates academic sensibilities. It is passionate, partisan, even snide. It doesn’t systematically review evidence pro and con, or points of view, and it takes long detours to settle scores with opponents. It is long on anecdotes and examples, relative to systematic data. Its authors are confused on how economists use “selfishness”, and on basic Malthusian population theory; they aren’t really to be trusted on theory. Furthermore, their relationship advice seems flippant.

But on their key claim, that forager females were sexually promiscuous, I am persuaded: they are basically right. EBoHFS hardly offers any contrary evidence, it just keeps repeating that evidence is ambiguous, while embracing the usual story by default. (Sex at Dawn also gets forager peacefulness right – see Chapter 13.)  Searching for expert critical reviews, the closest I found were this and this, which mainly just complain it is all very complex and no simple generalizations apply.

The basic facts are these. Recent humans mostly had long-term pair-bonds, while our two closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, are quite sexually promiscuous. Yes, they hardly mate at random, and may return often to favorites. Even so:

“Among chimpanzees, ovulating females mate, on average, from six to eight times per day, and they are often eager to respond to the mating invitations of any and all males in the group. … A recent study … showed that more than half the young (seven of thirteen) had been fathered by males from outside the female’s home group.” [p70]

Bonobos females are even more promiscuous. In fact, to find biological analogues to recent human monogamy, EBoHFS looks to various kinds of birds; mammals won’t do. “Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate.” [p64]

The big question then is when did the biologically-rare (3% of mammals) phenomena of (near) monogamy arise in our lineage, millions of years ago with the rise of humans, or ten thousand years ago with the rise of farming? And since our data on modern foragers suggests that farming at least greatly reduced promiscuity (especially for females), the big question is really whether lightning struck once or twice, i.e., if there were one or two big unprecedented moves away from typical social-primate promiscuity. Occam’s razor suggests one lightning strike.

If human sex were like chimp and bonobo sex, how should we expect it adapt to human changes, like larger brains, group sizes, and lifespans, and more egalitarian sharing? Dunbar says brain size, group size, and grooming time fraction correlate, and says language let humans better “groom” our record size groups. If sex was part of “grooming”, we’d expect humans to spend a record fraction of time on sex. We should also expect more adaptations to longer term relations (like pedophilia).

So what is the data? Humans spend more time having sex than any known species. Human sex shares many otherwise-rare features with the promiscuous bonobos, who hide their fertile days and have sex all month long, in many positions including missionary where they gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss deeply. Bonobos share food with sex, and use sex for social bonding, such as via homosexuality. Human sex has many other features understandable as adaptations to promiscuity, including large external testicles, a record size penis designed to scoop away other semen, men preferring high male-to-female ratios in porn, long frequent sex, and women being louder and lasting longer than men.

Monogamy vs. promiscuity is a rare area where academics and cultural elites tend to favor the conservative/farmer side of the forager vs. farmer divide. While I find myself balking at the idea of embracing sex partners with forager promiscuity levels, I accept that this preference was culturally imprinted on me.

Many Sex At Dawn quotes below the fold: Continue reading "Sex At Dawn Is Right" »

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Retiring Humans

This morning I gave a 90 minute talk to ~70 retired folk at GMU’s lifelong learning institute, on a grand history of primates, foragers, farmers, industry, ems, and future stability. Listen here.

The audience was reasonably sharp and in a jovial mood.  Retired folk were especially able to appreciate the analogy with the human species retiring, though many still think the only reason the rest of us don’t kill retirees and take their stuff, or invade Mexico and take their stuff, is our empathy for them. It is hard for many to appreciate other economic reasons for respecting property rights.

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Forage vs Farm Podcast

Last Monday I did a 15 minute FIRE podcast interview with Arin Greenwood, who was nice enough to let me talk about what was on my mind then: legacies of forager vs. farmer conflicts.

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Pedophiles Mate For Life

In the farming era, people disapproved of sexual attraction, especially outside marriage, but weren’t much more offended by attraction to adolescent girls than to older women. Today, in contrast, we approve more of sexual attraction in general, even outside marriage, but we take great offense at pedophilia, i.e., older males attracted to pre-fertile females.

This trend is explained in part by rich folk reverting to forager ways, in particular to more sexual promiscuity. From Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality:

Adolescent females with exaggerated [fertility] ornaments in nonhuman primates exhibit and elicit from males relatively little sexual interest. Human adolescent females appear to differ in these respects. This difference is likely another manifestation of the profound implications of long-term pair bonding in humans. Human female lifetime reproductive success has historically been influenced by [their] ability to attract male attention during adolescence. Men’s sexual interest in adolescent females reflects the fact that, typically, their reproductive success achieved through pair bonds was not maximized by attending solely to cues of current fertility but also to cues of [future] reproductive ability. [p.124]

This is more about the long-term-ness of bonds, and less about whether they are pair bonds. Farmers look more to a female’s future fertility potential, while foragers and other primates with shorter-term relationships focus more on her current fertility. This turns farmer males into pedophiles, i.e., more interested in younger females. Pedophilia is a sign that a species or a culture has longer term sexual relationships. Which our culture considers to be a good thing. Which makes it ironic that we consider pedophilia a bad thing.

While we still praise marriage today, we are more accepting of sexual promiscuity. Of course neither farmers nor foragers are much offended by marriage-directed attraction to pre-fertile females.  So why are we so offended? Perhaps the key is our extending kid dependency further via more years of school. Perhaps we mentally rate someone’s “adultness” via their economic independence, and assume that their sexuality should follow this rating. If so, we might think of a 21 year old today the way our ancestors thought of a 14 year old, as an acceptable if young marriage partner, while thinking of a 14 year old today as our ancestors did a 10 year old, as unacceptably young. Count this as another way we have not fully adapted to industry era novelties.

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Do We Rule Our Fate?

Tyler Cowen:

How recognizable will humans be in five hundred years?

Alex reports:

Tyler and I argued recently about whether or not humans will be recognizably human in 500 years.

Let us assume that scientific progress continues.  My view is that parents don’t so much like “difference,” unless it is very directly in their favor.  Using technology, parents will select for children who are taller, smarter in the way that parents value, better looking, and perhaps also more loyal to their families.  The people in the wealthy parts of the world will look more like models and movie stars, but they will be quite recognizable. … People will in various ways be cyborgs, but more or less invisibly from the outside at least.

Dogs look different than they did five thousand years ago, but that is because humans controlled their breeding and opted for some extremes.  How would they look today if the dogs themselves had been in charge of the process?

At current rates of change, 500 years is a loooong time. For example, if familiar ~4%/yr economic growth rates continued for 500 years, the economy should get 300 million times bigger! When we look at the long-run evolution so far of creatures with preferences, e.g., primates or human organizations, we see that conscious preferences of initial versions have not historically been a huge influence on final results. Yet Tyler assumes that kid preferences of today’s parents are the main thing determining our descendants’ features in 500 years; today’s parents will get what they want then. But why would our wishes be so much more influential than our ancestors’ wishes?

Tyler is far from alone – many assume humans have wrested control of their future from traditional evolutionary influences, so that our distant future will be whatever we choose it to be today. But while such control might eventually be possible given sufficient coordination and foresight, it surely is not true in any general sense today. It might be trivially true if there were very little selection or drift of preferences over 500 years, but this seems pretty unlikely. And it is almost certainly not true in my em (whole brain emulation) scenario.

Yes with new techs change no longer need follow DNA mutation and crossover, and yes this allows for more rapid change.  But variation and selection should continue, no matter where designs are stored.

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