Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Trustworthy Telepresence

In a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, which questioned 11,383 people in 24 countries, about half believed that they would be at a disadvantage in earning promotions because of the lack of face-to-face contact. Previous research suggests part-time telecommuters do not communicate less frequently with managers. … After four years of experience, the average male telecommuter will earn about 6.9% less than a non-telecommuter. (more)

Telecommuting requires the use of various types of media to communicate, such as the telephone and email. Emails have a time lag that does not allow for immediate feedback; telephone conversations make it harder to decipher the emotions of the person or team on the phone; and both of these forms of communication do not allow one to see the other person. Typical organization communication patterns are thus altered in telecommuting. For instance, teams using computer-mediated communication with computer conferencing take longer to make group decisions than face-to-face groups. (more)

Decades ago many futurists predicted that many workers would soon telecommute, and empty out cities. Their argument seemed persuasive: workers who work mainly on computers, or who don’t have to move much physical product, seem able to achieve enough coordination to do their jobs via phone, email, and infrequent in-person meetings. And huge cost savings could come from avoiding central city offices, homes near them, and commuting between the two. (For example, five firms might share the same offices, with each firm using them one day per week.)

But it hasn’t remotely happened that way. And the big question is: why?

Some say telecommuters would shirk and not work as much, but it is hard to see that would remain much of a problem with a constant video feed watching them. Bryan Caplan favors a signaling explain, that we show up in person to show our commitment to the firm. But a firm should prefer employees who show devotion via more total work, instead of wasting hours on the road. Yes inefficient signaling equilibria can exist, but firms have many ways to push for this alternate equilibrium.

The standard proximate cause, described in the quote above, is that workers and their bosses get a lot of detailed emotional info via frequent in-person meetings. Such detailed emotional info can help to build stronger feelings of mutual trust and affiliation. But the key question is, why are firms willing to pay so much for that? How does it help firm productivity enough to pay for its huge costs?

My guess: frequent detailed emotional info helps political coalitions, even if not firms. Being able to read detailed loyalty signals is central to maintaining political coalitions. The strongest coalitions take over firms and push policies that help them resist their rivals. If a firm part adopted local policies that weakened the abilities of locals to play politics, that part would be taken over by coalitions from other parts of the firm, who would then push for policies that help them. A lack of telecommuting is only one of a long list of examples of inefficient firm policies than can be reasonably be attributed to coalition politics.

Some people hope that very high resolution telepresence could finally give enough detailed emotional info to make telecommuting workable. And that might indeed give enough info to build strong mutual trust and loyalty. But it is hard to make very high resolution telepresence feel natural, and we still far from having enough bandwidth to cheaply send that much info.

Furthermore, by the time we do we may also have powerful robust ways to fake that info. That is, we might have software that takes outgoing video and audio feeds and edits them to remove signs of disloyalty, to make people seem more trusting and trustworthy than they actually are. And if we all know this is possible, we won’t trust what we see in telepresence.

So, for telepresence to actually foster enough loyalty and trust to make telecommuting viable, not only does it need to feel comfortable and natural and give very high bandwidth info, but the process would need to be controlled by some trusted party, who ensures that people aren’t faking their appearances in ways that make it hard to read real feelings. Setting up a system like that would be much more challenging that just distributing something like Skype software.

Of course eventually humans might have chips under their skin to manipulate their sight and sound in real physical meetings. And then they might want ways to assure others aren’t using those. But that is probably much further off. (And of course ems might always “fake” their physical appearance.)

Again, I have hopes, but only weak hopes, for telepresence allowing for mass human telecommuting.

Added 3July: Perhaps I could have been clearer. The individual telecommuter could clearly be at a political disadvantage by not being part of informal gossip and political conversation. He would have fewer useful allies, and they would thus prefer that he or she not telecommute.

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Auto-Auto Deadline Looms

It is well-known that while electricity led to big gains in factory productivity, few gains were realized until factories were reorganized to take full advantage of the new possibilities which electric motors allowed. Similarly, computers didn’t create big productivity gains in offices until work flow and tasks were reorganized to take full advantage.

Auto autos, i.e., self-driving cars, seem similar: while there could be modest immediate gains from reducing accident rates and lost productive time commuting, the biggest gains should come from reorganizing our cities to match them. Self-driving cars could drive fast close together to increase road throughput, and be shared to eliminate the need for parking. This should allow for larger higher-density cities. For example, four times bigger cities could plausibly be twenty-five percent more productive.

But to achieve most of these gain, we must make new buildings with matching heights and locations. And this requires that self-driving cars make their appearance before we stop making so many new buildings. Let me explain.

Since buildings tend to last for many decades, one of the main reasons that cities have been adding many new buildings is that they have had more people who need buildings in which to live and work. But world population growth is slowing down, and may peak around 2055. It should peak earlier in rich nations, and later in poor nations.

Cities with stable or declining population build a lot fewer buildings; it would take them a lot longer to change city organization to take advantage of self-driving cars. So the main hope for rapidly achieving big gains would be in rapidly growing cities. What we need is for self-driving cars to become available and cheap enough in cities that are still growing fast enough, and which have legal and political support for driving such cars fast close together, so they can achieve high throughput. That is, people need to be sufficiently rewarded for using cars in ways that allow more road throughput. And then economic activity needs to move from old cities to the new more efficient cities.

This actually seems like a pretty challenging goal. China and India are making lots of buildings today, but those buildings are not well-matched to self-driving cars. Self-driving cars aren’t about to explode there, and by the time they are cheap the building boom may be over. Google announced its self-driving car program almost four years ago, and that hasn’t exactly sparked a tidal wave of change. Furthermore, even if self-driving cars arrive soon enough, city-region politics may well not be up to the task of coordinating to encourage such cars to drive fast close together. And national borders, regulation, etc. may not let larger economies be flexible enough to move much activity to the new cities who manage to support auto autos well.

Alas, overall it is hard to be very optimistic here. I have hopes, but only weak hopes.

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Status Bid Coalitions

Katja Grace and I talked a bit recently about a possible “big scope status bias”, and she wrote a post on one of the ideas we discussed:

I’m not convinced that more abstract things are more statusful in general, or that it would be surprising if such a trend were fairly imprecise. However supposing they are and it was, here is an explanation for why some especially abstract things seem silly. … Abstract rethinking of common concepts is easily mistaken for questioning basic assumptions. Abstract questioning of basic assumptions really is questioning basic assumptions. And questioning basic assumptions has a strong surface resemblance to not knowing about basic truths, or at least not having a strong gut feeling that they are true. (more)

Yes, people who question basic assumptions can be framed as silly for not understanding basic things. But I think a similarly strong effect is that people often just don’t like reconsidering basic assumptions. Once you’ve used certain assumptions and matching concepts for a long time, your thinking comes to rely on them. Not only would you lose a lot of that investment if your assumption was wrong, but it becomes mentally hard to even consider the possibility. A third strong effect, I think, is one I mentioned in my previous post:

It is harder to reason well about big scope choices, which is part of why it impresses to do that well. … Some topics will be so abstract that very few can deal well with them, or even evaluate the dealings of others. So those few people will tend more to be on their own, and not get much praise from others. (more)

Reasoning abstractly in a way that seems to question basic assumptions is often seen as a bid for status. As with most such bids, observers have to decide if to accept or oppose that bid. Observers are tempted to reject it, not only because they don’t like others to rise in status, but also because they don’t like to have to reconsider basic assumptions, and because it is so tempting to reject by ridicule, via insinuating that the bidder is stupid and silly.

But while these temptations can be strong, observers must also consider coalition politics – how many allies how strong can the bidder bring into play. If a high status field like physics brings broad unified support to the abstract reasoning, people will mostly back down and accept the abstract status bid. But if only a few supporters can be found with only modest status, the temptation to ridicule is likely to win out. Philosophers are often on the borderline here, with enough status to intimidate many, but not enough to intimidate high status folks like physicists, who are more tempted to ridicule them.

Added 10a: This helps explain the puzzle I engaged in Too Much Consulting? When managers want to push changes that seem to question basic firm assumptions, they need especially strong high status support to resist the ridicule response. So they hire prestigious management consultants.

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Paul Carr Interviews Me

In this episode of the Wow! Signal Podcast. The topic is ems, starting about minute 35, after an interview with Heath Rezabek.

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

The world has many problems and some of them are global. That is, some problems like war, global warming, and promoting innovation can benefit substantially from large scale coordination to address them. To judge from my Facebook feed, many think the main thing we need to solve such problems is more preaching – if only more folks would rail against the immorality of those who opposed their favored solutions. Another widely held view, expressed in a great many inspirational TED talks, is that we need more smart emphatic activists and inventors. But the following take is a more expert and believable:

Addressing Global Environmental Externalities: Transaction Costs Considerations. Is there a way to understand why some global environmental externalities are addressed effectively whereas others are not? … Property rights are supplied by international agreements that specify resource access and use, assign costs and benefits including outlining the size and duration of compensating transfer payments and determining who will pay and who will receive them. Four factors raise the transaction costs [and hence the difficulty] of assigning property rights: (i) scientific uncertainty regarding mitigation benefits and costs; (ii) varying preferences and perceptions across heterogeneous populations; (iii) asymmetric information; and (iv) the extent of compliance and new entry. (more)

While this paper doesn’t discuss it, another big issue is the strength and capacity of our institutions of global governance. For example, a lot of these problems would get solved a lot better with a high capacity world government. Such a government could better reduce uncertainty and secrets, enforce compliance, and promote compromises between conflicting interests.

If just you want to show off your moral outrage that problems aren’t being solved, by all means continue to preach that we must do better. But if you actually want to solve these problems, you should focus on identifying and dealing with their fundamental causes. Especially including the development of better mechanisms of global governance, and working to better understand what limits their deployment.

Btw, I tend to think that we hear the most preaching not about the problems that cause the most damage, but about those that best fit our schemas for moral outrage. For example, I tend to agree with Matt Ridley that global warming is a relatively minor problem, compared with for example overfishing and innovation promotion.

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Big Scope Status Bias

Some data points:

  1. Many incoming college freshman like “international studies” or “international business.” Far fewer like local studies or local business. Yet there will be more jobs in the later area than the former.
  2. The media discusses national and international politics more than more local politics, yet most of the “news you can use” is local.
  3. Our economics department once estimated there’d be substantial demand for a “managerial economics” major. It would teach basically the same stuff as in an economics major gets, but attract students because of the word “managerial.”
  4. Within management, reorganization is usually higher status than managing within existing structures.
  5. The ratio of students who do science majors relative to engineering majors is much larger than the ratio of jobs in those areas.
  6. Within science, students tend to prefer “basic” sciences like particle physics to more “applied” sciences like geology or material science, relative to the ratio of jobs in such areas.
  7. Compared to designing things from scratch, there is far more work out there maintaining, repairing, and making minor modifications to devices and software. Yet engineering and software schools focus mainly on designing things from scratch.
  8. Within engineering, designing products is higher status than designing the processes that manufacture those products.
  9. Designing new categories of products is seen as higher status than new products within existing categories.
  10. Even when designing from scratch, most real work is testing, honing, and debugging a basic idea. Yet in school the focus is more on creating the basic idea.
  11. There seems to be an overemphasis at school on designing tools that may be useful for other design work, relative to using tools to design things of more direct value.

Do these trends have something in common? My guess: we see wider-scope choices as higher status, all else equal. That is, things associated with choices that we think will influence and constrain many other choices are seen as higher status than things associated with those other more constrained choices. For example, we think managers constrain subordinates, world policy constrains local policy, physics constrains geology, product designs constrain product maintenance, and so on. Yes reverse constraints also happen, but we think those happen less often.

The ability to control the choices of others is a kind of power, and power has long been seen as a basis for status. There may also be a far-view heuristic at work here, i.e., where choices that evoke a far mental view tend to be seen as high status. After all, power does tend to evoke a far view.

A lesson here seems to be that while it can raise your status to be associated with big scope choices, you should expect a lot of competition for that status, and a relative neglect of smaller scope choices. That is, more people may major in science, but there are more jobs in engineering. You might impress people by focusing on creating designs in school, but you are likely to spend your life maintaining pre-existing designs. If you want to get stuff done instead of gaining status, you should focus on smaller scope choices.

Now in my life I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconsider basic big scope choices. For example, I’ve studied foundations of quantum mechanics, and proposed a new form of governance. And I’ve often thought of such topics as neglected. So how can I reconcile such views with the apparent lesson of this post?

One obvious reconciliation is that I’ve just been wrong, having succumbed to the big scope status bias.

Another possibility is that big scope topics tend more to be public goods where people tend to free-ride on the efforts of others. It is easier for a person or group to own the gains from better understanding smaller scope topics, and thus have a strong incentives to deal with them. If so, there would be positive externalities from progress on such topics, to counter the negative externalities from status and signaling. I think this explanation has some truth, but only some.

A third possibility is that it is harder to reason well about big scope choices, which is part of why it impresses to do that well. But if good reasoning is harder as the topic gets more abstract, there should be fewer people who can handle such topics. Some topics will be so abstract that very few can deal well with them, or even evaluate the dealings of others. So those few people will tend more to be on their own, and not get much praise from others.

Are there more possibilities to consider?

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Mocking As Respect

How can you tell which are the dominant ethnicities, professions, or genders? One easy test: in our society, dominant groups are ones that people are allowed to insult and lampoon. For example, you can get in a lot more trouble for making negative general statements about blacks or women than about whites or men. Maybe this fact can comfort dad today, as he gets his annual card mocking his role as father:

There’s a good chance if you receive — or give — a Father’s Day card this weekend, Dad will be portrayed as a farting, beer-obsessed, tool-challenged buffoon who would rather hog the TV remote, go fishing or play golf than be with the kids. Such cards are top sellers among the 87 million Father’s Day cards that will be given this year. …

About 25 percent of Hallmark’s Father’s Day cards are in the humor category, compared with 15 percent of Mother’s Day cards. Men also appreciate punch-in-the-arm, even immature, humor more than women do, companies say. …. You try to give mom a fart joke for Mother’s Day, it probably won’t fly very well, but with dad you can. …

Whyatt, the cartoonist, … said. “I’m sure there’s a way to make the new image of fathers funny as well, but it would be a shame to lose making dad the butt of the joke. Even though we’re all changing, hopefully we’ll still be able to take a joke.” (more)

Dads, the fact that you let them mock you, and show you can take a joke, is a good counter-signaling signal that you are loved and respected. Enjoy.

Note that while folks are eager to cut many public signals of which groups dominate, there is little push to cut this sort of signal.

Added 4p: I should note that in simple models counter-signaling there are three types, and the same signal is sent by the high and low type, which is a different signal from the mid type. So yes there are also low status groups today, like animals, which one is allowed to lampoon.

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Bias Is A Red Queen Game

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. The Red Queen.

In my last post I said that as “you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality”, we “must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases.” Some objected, seeing the task of overcoming bias as like lifting weights to build muscles. Scott Alexander compared it to developing habits of good posture and lucid dreaming:

If I can train myself to use proper aikido styles of movement even when I’m doing something stupid like opening a door, my body will become so used to them that they will be the style I default to when my mind is otherwise occupied. .. Lucid dreamers offer some techniques for realizing you’re in a dream, and suggest you practice them even when you are awake, especially when you are awake. The goal is to make them so natural that you could (and literally will) do them in your sleep. (more)

One might also compare with habits like brushing your teeth regularly, or checking that your fly isn’t unzipped. There are indeed many possible good habits, and some related to rationality. And I encourage you all to develop good habits.

What I object to is letting yourself think that you have sufficiently overcome bias by collecting a few good mental habits. My reason: the task of overcoming bias is a Red Queen game, i.e., one against a smart, capable, and determined rival, not a simple dumb obstacle.

There are few smart determined enemies trying to dirty your teeth, pull your fly down, mess your posture, weaken your muscles, or keep you unaware that you are dreaming. Nature sometimes happens to block your way in such cases, but because it isn’t trying hard to do so, it takes only modest effort to overcome such obstacles. And as these problems are relatively simple and easy, an effective strategy to deal with them doesn’t have to take much context into account.

For a contrast, consider the example of trying to invest to beat the stock market. In that case, it isn’t enough to just be reasonably smart and attentive, and avoid simple biases like not deciding when very emotional. When you speculate in stocks, you are betting against other speculators, and so can only expect to win if you are better than others. If you can’t reasonably expect to have better info and analysis than the average person on the other side of your trades, you shouldn’t bet at all, but instead just take the average stock return, by investing in index funds.

Trying to beat the stock market is a Red Queen game against a smart determined opponent who is quite plausibly more capable than you. Other examples of Red Queen games are poker, and most competitive contests like trying to win at sports, music, etc. The more competitive a contest, the more energy and attention you have to put in to have a chance at winning, and the more you have to expect to specialize to have a decent chance. You can’t just develop good general athletic habits to win at all sports, you have to pick the focus sport where you are going to try to win. And for all the non-focus sports, you might play them for fun sometimes, but you shouldn’t expect to win against the best.

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Given this legacy, it is hard to see how your particular conscious mind has much of a chance at all. So if you are going to create a fighting chance, you will need to try very hard. And this trying hard should include focusing a lot, so you can realize gains from specialization. Just as you’d need to pay close attention and focus well to have much of a chance at beating the hedge funds and well-informed expert speculators who you compete with in stock markets.

In stock markets, the reference point for “good enough” is set by the option to just take the average via an index fund. If using your own judgement will do worse than an index fund, you might as well just take that fund. In overcoming bias, a reference point is set by the option to just accept the estimates of others who are also trying to overcome bias, but who focus on that particular topic.

Yes you might do better than you otherwise would have if you use a few good habits of rationality. But doing a bit better in a Red Queen game is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. If those good habits make you think “I’m a rationalist,” you might think too highly of yourself, and be reluctant to just take the simple option of relying on the estimates of others who try to overcome their biases and focus on those particular topics. After all, refusing to defer to others is one of our most common biases.

Remember that the processes inside you that bias your beliefs are many, varied, subtle, and complex. They express themselves in different ways on different topics. It is far from sufficient to learn a few simple generic tricks that avoid a few simple symptoms of bias. Your opponent is putting a lot more work into it than that, and you will need to do so as well if you are to have much of a chance. When you play a Red Queen game, go hard or go home.

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Don’t Be “Rationalist”

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. Richard Feynman

This blog is called “Overcoming Bias,” and many of you readers consider yourselves “rationalists,” i.e., folks who try harder than usual to overcome your biases. But even if you want to devote yourself to being more honest and accurate, and to avoiding bias, there’s a good reason for you not to present yourself as a “rationalist” in general. The reason is this: you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality.

It seems obvious to me that almost no humans are able to force themselves to see honestly and without substantial bias on all topics. Even for the best of us, the biasing forces in and around us are often much stronger than our will to avoid bias. Because it takes effort to overcome these forces, we must choose our battles, i.e., we must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases. I see four key issues:

1. Priorities – You should spend your rationality budget where truth matters most to you. You can’t have it all, so you must decide what matters most. For example, if you care mainly about helping others, and if they mainly rely on you via a particular topic, then you should focus your honesty on that topic. In particular, if you help the world mainly via your plumbing, then you should try to be honest about plumbing. Present yourself to the world as someone who is honest on plumbing, but not necessarily on other things. In this scenario we work together by being honest on different topics. We aren’t “rationalists”; instead, we are each at best “rationalist on X.”

2. Costs – All else equal, it is harder to be honest on more and wider topics, on topics where people tend to have emotional attachments, and on topics close to the key bias issues of the value and morality of you and your associates and rivals. You can reasonably expect to be honest about a wide range of topics that few people care much about, but only on a few narrow topics where many people care lots. The close you get to dangerous topics, the smaller your focus of honesty can be. You can’t be both a generalist and a rationalist; specialize in something.

3. Contamination – You should try to avoid dependencies between your beliefs on focus topics where you will try to protect your honesty, and the topics where you are prone to bias. Try not to have your opinions on focus topics depend on a belief that you or your associates are especially smart, perceptive, or moral. If you must think on risky topics about people, try to first study other people you don’t care much about. If you must have an opinion on yourself, assume you are like most other people.

4. Incentives – I’m not a big fan of the “study examples of bias and then will yourself to avoid them” approach; it has a place, but gains there seem small compared to changing your environment to improve your incentives. Instead of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, step onto higher ground. For example, by creating and participating in a prediction market on a topic, you can induce yourself to become more honest on that topic. The more you can create personal direct costs of your dishonesty, the more honest you will become. And if you get paid to work on a certain topic, maybe you should give up on honesty about who if anyone should be paid to do that.

So my advice is to choose a focus for your honesty, a narrow enough focus to have a decent chance at achieving honesty. Make your focus more narrow the more dangerous is your focus area. Try to insulate beliefs on your focus topics from beliefs on risky topics like your own value, and try to arrange things so you will be penalized for dishonesty. Don’t persent yourself as a “rationalist” who is more honest on all topics, but instead as at best “rationalist on X.”

So, what is your X?

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Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "Forager Mating Returns" »

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