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Evolution’s Gravity: A Paean to Natural Selection

Physicists speak of four fundamental forces that govern the interactions among the bits of matter that make up our universe. The strongest of these four forces, aptly known as the Strong Force, is so powerful that it can keep an atom’s positively charged protons from ripping the atom’s nucleus apart as their mutually repellent positive charges push them in opposite directions. The second fundamental force, electromagnetism, is 137 times weaker than the strong force, but its ability to cause bits of matter with opposing electrical charges to attract each other, and to cause bits of matter with like charges to avoid each other, is what gives unique three-dimensional structure to atoms, molecules, and even the proteins that form the building blocks of our body’s cells. At only one-millionth the strength of the strong force, the third fundamental force—the so-called weak force—changes quarks from one bizarre “flavor” to another and gives rise to nuclear fusion reactions.

The weak force deserves a better name: It’s actually the fourth force—gravity—that’s the weakling of the bunch. At only 6/1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 the strength of the strong force, the influence of gravity on the interactions of protons, quarks, and other subatomic particles amounts to, well, about as close to zero as you can get. When I use the refrigerator magnet that holds up my kid’s school photo to lift the ring of keys on the kitchen table, the magnet easily overcomes the gravitational pull of the entire planet. At Subatomic Beach, gravity is the scrawny guy who’s always getting sand kicked in his face.

But the only reason gravity looks like such a weakling in comparison to the other fundamental forces is because we haven’t yet zoomed out to the scales of mass and distance that reveal gravity’s actual power to guide the interactions among bits of matter. For the change of perspective that can reveal gravity’s real power, we have to use a telescope, not a particle accelerator. When we’re studying the interactions of very small things that are separated by small distances, gravity is the only fundamental force that doesn’t matter. But when we’re studying the interactions of large things that are separated by great distances, it’s the only one that does.

Every time the mass of an object increases one-hundredfold, the influence of gravity upon its particles increases tenfold. Because very massive objects like planets and stars have no net electrical charge (the charges of all of their constituent bits more or less cancel each other), it’s the weakling gravity—acting across huge distances, always attracting, never repelling—that causes their interactions. And when an object gets really massive—roughly the size of 100 Jupiters—the gravitational forces acting on the atoms that make up that jumbo object can hold the object’s particles in a spherical shape even when weak force interactions among those particles have turned the center of the object into a nuclear fusion reactor. Gravity is the Charles Atlas of the cosmos. Gravity is a star-maker.

Researchers-Simulate-Astrophysical-Jets-in-the-Lab

Natural selection, one of the fundamental processes of evolution, has something in common with gravity: A public relations problem. At one level of analysis, natural selection, like gravity, looks like a chump. When you’re looking up close at the tiny bits of stuff that go into making humans—the sequences of DNA that constitute the human genome—and how they came to be arranged in the manner that they are, natural selection doesn’t seem to have done very much. Other evolutionary processes, such as mutation, migration, and drift, seem to have exerted far more powerful influences on our genomes. For that matter, distinctly non-evolutionary events—one-off famines, freezes, floods, and fires—can exert a far more powerful influence on the fate of a species at any given point in time than natural selection can.

However, when you zoom out and look at evolution from a high-altitude vantage point, natural selection is the only evolutionary force that matters at all. This is because natural selection is the only evolutionary force that can produce design.  Natural selection, like gravity, acts uniformly and consistently, through deep time, to sift genes according to one hard-and-fast criterion: It increases the prevalence of genes that are good at increasing their own rates of propagation and it reduces the prevalence of genes that are less good at increasing their rates of propagation.

As Richard Dawkins has described so brilliantly in so many different ways, genes take actions in the world that alter their rates of replication by cloaking themselves in really cool features and gadgets—mitochondria, ribosomes, specialized cells, arms, legs, eyes, ears, neurons, brains, beliefs, desires. Those features that increase the genes’ replication rates get conserved and elaborated upon. Those that reduce the genes’ rates of replication are shuffled off. As the result of aeons and aeons of a gene-sifting process that operates according to a single criterion—does this gene create phenotypic effects that speed up its propagation in the population, or does it slow its propagation?—organisms accumulate design.

None of the other evolutionary forces can produce this kind of complex functional design. The result of all of natural selection’s criterion-based gene-sifting is that organisms end up looking like geniuses for thriving in the environments to which they are adapted. Bacteria, birds, bees, bats, bears, boas–and even Bill and Betty–every one is a genius.

Natural selection, like gravity, is a star-maker.

Lexical Cognitions: Misbegotten altruism, sniping ethnographers, and who actually wrote the Bible? Book recommendations for 24 July 2018

A MILLION new books.

Nearly 2 million new scientific papers.

Every single year.

For as far as the eye can see into the future.

And yet, how many times have you sat down to lunch or into your coach-class seat with absolutely nothing good to read? If your answer, like ours, is “far too often,” then we hope you will enjoy our new occasional blog series, “Lexical Cognitions.” Expect regular coverage of social science, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology, but I doubt we’ll be able to resist throwing in the occasional novel or bit of long-form non-fiction. Our Lexical Cognitions are not ageist: If it’s got words on it, then it’s fair game for Lexical Cognitions, even if it’s old.

Although I’m sure we’ll pan a book or an article from time to time, I’d expect mostly plugs. I doubt we’ll want to spend a lot of time writing about books or articles that we think you shouldn’t waste your time on.

We’ve got three books for you this week.

1.

The first is Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? Joseph Billingsley, who is a fifth-year student in our PhD program, calls it “a superb and eminently readable synthesis of scholarly investigation into the origins of Western culture’s most influential book.” Here’s how Joseph described the book to me:

Friedman takes what could be a dull academic treatise and turns it into the intellectual equivalent of a compelling detective story, drawing readers deeper and deeper into the mystery of the Bible’s authorship. Deft in its presentation of close textual analysis, historical context, and above all the logic that ties the pieces of the puzzle together, Friedman’s book brings to life the very human authors of what Christian readers call the Old Testament—their hopes, their fears, their goals, and their tragic history. The insights that have been produced by centuries of Biblical scholarship—so lucidly laid out by Elliott—consistently amaze, and profoundly deepen one’s understanding of how the Western conception of God has emerged. Frankly, it’s too bad that the findings summarized in this book are not common knowledge, but are instead largely limited to scholars and academics.

2.

This week, I have been reading Suzanne Franks’s Reporting disasters: Famine, aid, politics and the media. Franks, who is now a professor of journalism at the City University of London, worked for many years at the BBC, including during the 1980s when the BBC’s news division brought British (and, eventually, global) attention to the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985.

As Franks tells it, the BBC’s coverage so oversimplified the causes for the famine (which had at least as much to do with civil war as with drought and climate changes) that many viewers came to believe that solving the Ethiopian dilemma was a mere matter of shipping food, medicine, and supplies to a suffering Ethiopian people. The BBC broadcasts, as it happens, are what inspired pop musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to put together the British charity supergroup Band Aid, which recorded their hit “Feed the World” in a single day at the end of November 1984. Feed the World sold 2 million copies (I know mine’s around here somewhere), raising more than $20 million for famine relief.

Months later, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie put together a charity supergroup on our side of the pond called USA for Africa. Their (objectively much better by any sensible standard) charity single “We Are the World” featured so many musical stars from the American musical galaxy (including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, Huey Lewis, and Al Jarreau) that it almost makes one’s ears ring to imagine them all in a studio at the same time.

The pinnacle of the 1984-1985 musical year of miracles for Africa, however, was the one-day trans-Atlantic music festival/orgy of rock-and-roll emotional excess/pledge drive called Live Aid, which took place simultaneously in London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium. Among other notable moments in the history of pop music, Live Aid is remembered today for bequeathing to us what is very plausibly the worst set Led Zeppelin ever performed (three-quarters of Led Zeppelin, anyway, with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums). Nonetheless, it has been estimated that 40% of the world’s televisions were tuned in to Live Aid at some point on July 13, 1985, and it broke all previous fundraising efforts to raise money for African poverty relief. Indeed, between 1984 and 1985, Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid raised over $200 million for African famine relief and development.

Despite this heartwarming global outpouring of concern for the world’s poorest and neediest, however, real questions linger even to this day about whether this massive fundraising effort created more problems than it solved by prolonging Ethiopia’s civil war. Franks’s book is a very important exercise in Monday-morning quarterbacking about disaster journalism, and about activism in the absence of an expert’s grasp of critical facts.

3.

The third review for this week comes from William McAuliffe, another fifth-year student in our program. Will just finished The Mountain People, Colin Turnbull’s ethnography of a small-scale society in Uganda called the Ik. The book sent Will off in some directions that should fascinate anyone interested in anthropology, behavioral ecology, or social behavior more generally. Here’s Will:

While acknowledging that he was observing a group going through a dire famine, Turnbull nevertheless described the Ik in vitriolic terms–they were sadistic, unwilling to care for suffering family members, and uninterested in intimate social interactions. He recommended that the government should forcibly disband the Ik in the hopes of saving the individuals while killing the culture. Although the book enjoyed popularity among laypeople, it immediately drew harsh criticism from the anthropological community. Turnbull’s work was critiqued mostly on ethical grounds but also out of a suspicion that he had been biased against the Ik from the start. This suspicion was ostensibly confirmed in 1985, when a linguist named Bernd Heine reported that he could not corroborate most of Turnbull’s observations. Heine pointed out that Turnbull had a poor command of the Ik language, and had even mistakenly used many non-Ik as key informants. These shortcomings caused him to misunderstand many basic aspects of Ik life, including their religious beliefs, knowledge of flora, and customs for ratifying and dissolving marriages. Heine went so far as to suggest that Turnbull had projected his own malevolent sentiments onto his research subjects. In a 2013 documentary called Ikland, a small group of filmmakers visited the Ik and found them to be amicable. (Interestingly, the documentary also vilifies the Turkana, a neighboring pastoralist group that Turnbull got along with quite well.)  Echoing Heine, the filmmakers concluded that Turnbull must have provoked any antisocial behavior he observed.

However, neither the film nor Heine presented evidence that the cruel behavior that Turnbull had observed in the 1960s was actually a fabrication. An unexplored alternative possibility was simply that the society had changed for the better. In a recent issue of Ethnos, Rane Willerslev and Lotte Meinert (2016) began to set the record straight by reading passages from The Mountain People to the Ik and asking them whether they rang true. In a partial vindication of the book’s contents, many Ik informants agreed that extreme callousness did indeed arise among their ranks during famines. When there was literally not enough food to go around, they argued, everyone had to look out for number one. But when times improved, people forgave each other and cooperative relations resumed. Willerslev and Meinert pointed out that the correlation between famine and antisocial behavior is not unique to the Ik, and is in fact common in small-scale societies where food is eaten right away rather than stored (either because it is not easily kept fresh or because competing groups might try to steal it). In such societies, people tend not to develop alliances that impose obligations to share food in a reciprocal manner. Rather, people simply demand to have some of each other’s leftovers, and acquiescence is not registered as a favor. Unfortunately, when famine strikes there are no leftovers, nor allies to call on for help.

I appreciated this discussion of general trends among small-scale societies in part because it represents a departure from the overly personal tone that characterizes most reactions to The Mountain People. Many of Turnbull’s critics seemed eager to vindicate the Ik as a dignified people. To do so, they seemed to feel as though they needed to discredit Turnbull’s observations entirely. But understanding the Ik from a nomothetic rather than an idiographic point of view obviates the temptation to label them as either good or bad. Rather, their suffering merely points up the horrors of poverty, and the inability of a demand-based sharing system to facilitate survival during the worst of times.

Happy reading!

Think Globally, Forgive Instrumentally

Why do some societies place a higher priority on forgiveness than others do? It is tempting to imagine that the differences come down to differences in religious values, but the group of nations that place the highest priority on forgiveness in their hierarchies of values includes Egypt, Ukraine, Vietnam, the United States, Australia, Japan, and Sweden—hardly a religiously homogeneous club. The same goes for the societies that place forgiveness relatively low in their value hierarchies: Canada, Turkey, China, Poland, Chile, India, and Israel are about as religiously varied as you could get.

So if it’s not religion that really matters, then what does?

The social psychologists Katje Hanke and Christin-Melanie Vauclair found a clever way to examine this question. They took advantage of existing published research that used the Rokeach Values Survey, which was first published in 1967. The Rokeach Values Survey asks respondents to rank-order two lists of values according to their personal importance. One of the lists comprises 18 so-called “instrumental values,” which Rokeach defined as “preferable modes of behavior.” The instrumental values are means to other ends–they’re people’s individual approaches to obtaining what Rokeach called the “terminal values” (this list, too, is a grab bag that includes “Wisdom,” “Salvation,” “National Security,” and everything in between). The Instrumental Values, then, are the means you use to fulfill the aspirations that matter most to you in life.

Hanke and Vauclair gathered up as many articles as they could find that used the Rokeach Values Survey between 1967 and 2006. With those articles in hand, they were able to estimate the value priorities of people in 30 different countries. Here’s a list of Rokeach’s 18 instrumental values and the mean rankings they received across all 30 nations. As you can see, on average “Forgiving” comes in right in the middle at #8:

Table 1

That average ranking is misleading, however, because as Table 2 shows, the 30 societies differed quite a lot in the priority they placed on forgiveness.

Table 2

These cross-national trends are interesting enough, but the real value of this cross-cultural study comes from the researchers’ effort to examine the qualities of those societies themselves that determine the priority forgiveness receives. Hanke and Vauclair examined three measures in particular. The first was an index of human development that summarized information about mean life expectancy, national income per capita, and average level of educational attainment. The second was a measure of subjective well-being. The third was a measure of democratization.

The researchers found that societies that placed a relatively high value on forgiveness tended to have higher levels of subjective well-being and higher scores on the human development index. They were no more or less likely to be democracies. Moreover, when all three predictor variables were used simultaneously to predict the 30 nations’ prioritization of forgiveness, only the human development index emerged as a unique predictor of the importance ascribed to forgiveness. The societies in which people live long, fulfilling lives, it seems, are the ones in which people pursue forgiveness as a way of obtaining what matters most in life to them.

I find this conclusion to be particularly charming because it fits nicely with a body of theorizing called Life History Theory, which suggests that human beings adjust their approaches to life on the basis of whether they expect their lives to be long (vs. short), stable (vs. unpredictable), and mild (vs. harsh). When life is predictable and pleasant, people invest in the maintenance of thick, interconnected webs of social interaction that may not lead to personal payoffs for months, years, or even generations. In such an environment, it pays to forgive because forgiveness has the capacity to restore relationships that may pay out benefits over very long time horizons. When life is shorter, harsher, and less predictable, the theory goes, people have shorter fuses and defend their interests with threats of retaliatory violence. Such an interpretation also fits to some extent with some laboratory findings we have obtained about the role that early family environments might play in predisposing people to use revenge to defend their interests.

The study is not without its limitations. For some societies, for example, Hanke and Vauclair were able to find only a smattering of data upon which to make generalizations about an entire nation’s value profile over the course of 4 decades. Such estimates may contain much more noise than signal. Also, the authors they limited their search for possible society-level correlates of forgiveness to a rather limited number of possibilities. Still, it’s an admirable start. Given the tremendous attention that life history theory has been enjoying in recent years, and especially in light of the unceasing calls for social science to become a more self-consciously cross-cultural discipline, expect more work like this over the next decade.

Hanke, K., & Vauclair, C. M. (2016). Investigating the human value “forgiveness” across 30 countries: a cross-cultural meta-analytical approach. Cross-Cultural Research50(3), 215-230.

 

When is a Measure of Oxytocin No Such Thing?

Medical Technology class room shots. 4/27/05 By University of Delaware [CC BY 3.0] . http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Laboratory demonstration photos are just the best.

A few days ago, I promised I would demonstrate how you can use Denny Borsboom and colleagues’ concept of validity to evaluate whether a scientific device is a valid tool for scientific measurement. To review, Borsboom and colleagues argued that we can claim that a scientific device D provides valid measurement of an invisible substance, force, or trait (which I will represent as T) when two conditions are obtained:

(1) T must exist;

(2) T must cause physical changes to D that can be read off as measurements of T.

Once you accept this definition of validity, evaluating whether a scientific device is actually a scientific measure becomes simple (not necessarily easy, but simple)—even fun: You need to concern yourself with trying to find answers to exactly two questions: First, does this thing that researchers call T even exist? In other words, is T what philosophers of science would call a “natural kind?” Second, if T does exist, are we justified in believing that the natural kind we have named T causes physical changes to the Device that can then be read off as measurements of T?

In this post, I’ll use this approach to think through the validity of a biological assay technique that is often used in hopes of measuring oxytocin in human body fluids such as blood plasma, serum, or saliva. I’ve written a bit on this blog about research in humans on the social causes and effects of oxytocin (for example, here, here, and here). My colleagues and I see signs that a lot of the enthusiasm for this research is being driven by wishful thinking about whether the devices that are being called oxytocin assays are actually valid measures. To gain purchase on this particular validity problem, Borsboom and colleagues’ concept of validity tells you everything you should want to know: First, you will want to know whether there is a natural kind in the world that corresponds to the concept that we have decided to call oxytocin. Second, you will want to know whether that natural kind that we are calling oxytocin is responsible for physical changes in the Device. That’s all you need to care about.

The consequence of accepting this simple but strict definition is liberating. Among other things, you can brush aside validity arguments that rest on claims that individual differences in measured levels of oxytocin are correlated (for instance) with self-ratings of social support, or scores on a measure of empathic accuracy, or how many Facebook friends people have. Sure, all of those correlations might fit with somebody’s theory of oxytocin, but validity arguments that rest on correlational claims like that are so 20th-century.

All you need to concern yourself with is (a) whether oxytocin exists; and (b) whether oxytocin is causally responsible for the scores that your device produces. You can quickly satisfy yourself that (a) is true: Sir Henry Dale extracted oxytocin from the human pituitary gland in 1909. The biochemist Vincent de Vigneaud identified its molecular structure in 1953. So, all that’s left to confirm is (b).

And how do we confirm (b)? Through experimental research, not correlational research. Quite simply, the question we want an answer to is this: Does the nine-amino-acid substance that we have come to call oxytocin exert causal effects on the physical states of a particular device that we can read off as measurements of that substance? If so, when you add known quantities of oxytocin to a container (or to an animal) that has zero oxytocin in it, the device should then undergo physical changes in proportion to the amount of oxytocin that you added. From those changes, it should be possible to work backwards and solve for the amount of oxytocin that was added in the first place. If you can’t do that (and, as a few of us have been arguing, with some of the most popular approaches to assaying oxytocin, you can’t), then you should doubt the validity of that particular assay. Indeed, it might be more accurate to view such a device as a very expensive random number generator.

The oxytocin assays I am referring to here fail Borsboom’s validity test because they fail on criterion (b): Changes in physical states of those assays cannot be read off veridically as changes in oxytocin. Other measures can fail the Borsboom test for a more interesting reason: The trait that they supposedly measure doesn’t exist in the first place.

I’ll look at that scenario in my next post.

Borsboom, D., Mellenbergh, G. J., & van Heerden, J. (2004). The concept of validity. Psychological Review, 111, 1061-1071.

Postscript: Denny Borsboom tells me that the reason that their paper is not visible to Google Scholar is that the citations for that paper are getting merged with another one of their papers. What a drag.

TWO years ago, I idly surfed my way to a harmless-seeming article from 2004 by Denny Borsboom, Gideon Mellenbergh, and Jaap van Heerden entitled The Concept of Validity. More than a decade had passed since its publication, and I had never heard of it. Egocentrically, this seemed like reason enough to surf right past it. Then I skimmed the abstract. Intrigued, I proceeded to read the first few paragraphs. By that point, I was hooked: I scrapped my plans for the next couple of hours so I could give this article my complete attention. This was a paper I needed to read immediately.

I’ve thought about The Concept of Validity every day for the past two years. I have mentioned or discussed or recommended The Concept of Validity hundreds of times. My zeal for The Concept of Validity is the zeal of an ex-smoker. The concept of validity in The Concept of Validity has led to a complete reformatting of my understanding of validity, and of measurement in general—and not just in the psychological sciences, but in the rest of the sciences, too. And those effects have oozed out to influence just about everything else I believe about science. The Concept of Validity is the most important paper you’ve probably never heard of.*

The concept of validity in The Concept of Validity is so simple that it’s a bit embarrassing even to write it down, but its simplicity is what makes it so diabolical, and so very different from what most in the social sciences of have believed validity to be for the past 60 years.

According to Borsboom and colleagues, a scientific device (let’s label it D) validly measures a trait or substance (which we will label T), if and only if two conditions are fulfilled:

(1) T must exist;

(2) T must cause the measurements on D.

That’s it. That is the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity.

This is a Device. There are invisible forces in the world that cause changes in the physical state of this Device. Those physical changes can be read off as representations of the states of those invisible forces. Thus, this Device is a valid measurement of those invisible forces.

What is most conspicuous about the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity is what it lacks. There is no talk of score meanings and interpretations (à la Cronbach and Meehl). There is no talk of integrative judgments involving considerations of the social or ethical consequences of how scores are put to use (à la Messick). There’s no talk of multitrait-multimethod matrixes (à la Campbell and Fiske), nomological nets (Cronbach and Meehl again), or any of the other theoretical provisos, addenda, riders, or doo-dads with which psychologists have been burdening their concepts of validity since the 1950s. Instead, all we need—and all we must have—for valid measurement is the fulfillment of two conditions: (1) a real force or trait or substance (2) whose presence exerts a causal influence on the physical state of a device. Once those conditions are fulfilled, a scientist can read off the physical changes to the device as measurements of T. And voila: We’ve got valid measurement.

Boorsboom and colleagues’ position is such a departure from 20th century notions of validity precisely because they are committed to scientific realism—a stance to which many mid-20th-century philosophers of science were quite allergic. But most philosophers of science have gotten over their aversion to scientific realism now. In general, they’re mostly comfortable with the idea that there could be hidden realities that are responsible for observable experience. Realism seemed like a lot to swallow in 1950. It doesn’t in 2017.

As soon as you commit to scientific realism, there is a kind of data you will prize more highly than any other for assessing validity, and that’s causal evidence. What a realist wants more than anything else on earth or in the heavens is evidence that the hypothesized invisible reality (the trait, or substance, or whatever) is causally responsible for the measurements the device produces. Every other productive branch of science is already working from this definition of validity. Why aren’t the social sciences?

For some of the research areas I’ve messed around with over the past few years, the implications of embracing the concept of validity in The Concept of Validity are profound, and potentially nettlesome: If we follow Borsboom and colleagues’ advice, we can discover that some scientific devices do indeed provide valid measurement, precisely because the trait or substance T they supposedly measure actually seems to exist (fulfilling Condition #1) and because there is good evidence that T is causally responsible for physical features of the device that can be read off as measurements of T (fulfilling Condition #2). In other areas, the validity of certain devices as measures looks less certain because even though we can be reasonably confident that the trait or substance T exists, we cannot be sure that changes in T are responsible for the physical changes in the device. In still other areas, it’s not clear that T exists at all, in which case there’s no way that the device can be a measure of T.

I will look at some of these scenarios more closely in an upcoming post.

Borsboom, D., Mellenbergh, G. J., & van Heerden, J. (2004). The concept of validity. Psychological Review, 111, 1061-1071.

*Weirdly, The Concept of Validity does not come up in Google Scholar. I’ve seen this before, actually. Why does this happen?

Are We Just Going to Burn Illegal Ivory? How About Flooding the Market with Synthetic Ivory?

ON Saturday, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta oversaw the destruction of over $100 Million in illegal ivory as a protest against the international ivory trade, which is slowly killing the African Elephant. As a heavily publicized international event (it was covered extensively by many news agencies, including in this piece in Sunday’s New York Times), it cannot be a bad thing to use this opportunity to raise awareness of the existential threat that poaching poses to Africa’s elephants, and I’m all for consciousness raising, but this is a half-measure at best. Can’t we do better than just grandstanding? How about driving down the value of poached ivory?

Attribution: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Attribution: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

I think I read somewhere that the prices of goods tend to go down as the supply goes up. Is anybody talking seriously about just swamping the illegal ivory market with ivory we can make in the laboratory? I’m not just spinning a sci-fi scenario here. This company has figured out how to synthesize rhinoceros horn in the laboratory by taking the genetic code that built rhinoceros horn in actual living rhinos and using it as a set of instructions for 3-D printing. Is there some reason why the same approach could not be used to synthesize elephant ivory in the laboratory and then flood the market with it? Stiff penalties for poachers and ivory traders is certainly worth pursuing as a strategy, as is placing bans on ivory imports and exports, but why not deter poachers and traders by just flat-out removing their economic incentives?

Evidently, conservation experts are far from convinced that laboratory-synthesized rhino horn will displace the poaching industry by causing the prices to crash, and with so few rhinos left I suppose there isn’t much time for chasing options that won’t help.  Perhaps you can’t do everything at once when you’re facing a crisis as dire as the one that is facing the rhino. But honestly, it’s hard for me to see how a technological solution based on the laws of supply and demand don’t deserve some honest consideration as well as we think about saving Africa’s elephants.

The Generosity of Nations Before the Welfare State

Lange-MigrantMother02FOR the past four years or so, I have been working on a book about the evolutionary and cultural basis for humans’ generosity toward strangers. As I’ve worked to understand the major transitions in human generosity over the past few millennia, I’ve regularly lamented the fact that the quantitative data on formalized efforts to meet the needs of the poor and destitute are very poor in the historical record until around 1880. Nevertheless, I have continued to look on an almost weekly basis for new results that could help make sense of the history of human generosity before the welfare state.

This past week, I finally hit paydirt. In this new paper, Bas van Bavel and Auke Rijpma used data from a variety of historical documents to estimate the proportions of GDP devoted to formalized efforts to meet the needs of the poor in three European countries (Italy, the Netherlands, and England) going back as far as 1430. As far as I am aware, these are the oldest data on formalized poor relief that have ever been assembled. Between 1430 and 1850, it looks like these three nations had the will (and the ways) to devote about 1.5% of GDP to poor relief.

The numbers from Van Bavel and Rijpma are more or less directly comparable to the percentages of GDP that the modern OECD nations devote to so-called “social transfers.” The OECD numbers incorporate everything from health insurance to unemployment assistance to school lunches, and everything in between. Across all of the OECD nations, about 22% of GDP goes to social spending, but these numbers exclude private social spending (for example by corporations in the forms of health insurance and retirement pensions for workers, which are particularly important sources of social spending in the UK, the US, and Canada). Thus the OECD figures actually underestimate how much of GDP is going to social spending in the world’s richest nations today.

Compared to the 20-30% of GDP that most OECD nations currently devote to health, education, social security, and the like, the 1 or 2% expenditures in Italy, the Netherlands, and England from the Renaissance through the 19th century look paltry indeed. But it’s important to remember that most people were living at subsistence levels until the end of the 19th century anyway. You can’t expect people, or their nations, to take an abiding interest in the welfare of strangers in need until they have enough surpluses of their own to meet their own needs and the needs of their loved ones.

My Kid’s Middle School Teacher Teams Up with Richard Dawkins to Start The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES)

Last night, I got a text message from my kid’s middle school science teacher, Bertha Vazquez. She’s a hell of a teacher, and she’s also a huge fan of Richard Dawkins–particularly because of how effective he is at making evolution make sense. Some time ago Bertha told me that she was working on a project with Richard to create a project designed to provide teachers with better tools for teaching evolution in the middle-school curriculum.

The project has now been launched! The mission of Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a project of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, is to teach “middle school science teachers the most-up-to-date concepts of evolutionary science.” They have plans for workshops, web-based tools, and the quantitative measurement of learning outcomes. It’s a brand-new endeavor, and you can read more here.

You can watch a video introduction of TIES here.

If you want to make a donation (which the Louis J. Appignani Foundation will match dollar-for-dollar through the rest of 2015), visit the TIES fund-raising site on RocketHub.

Is Kim Davis Really Wrestling with a Violated Religious Conscience?

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Kim Davis, you’ll surely recall, is the Kentucky Clerk of Courts who ended up spending five days in a jail cell after refusing to comply with a federal judge’s orders to sign marriage licenses for gay couples. She’s out now, and back at work, and so far has been allowing her deputy clerks to sign the licenses in her stead. So most of us were hoping we’d never hear about Kim Davis again.

But she’s back in the news. Upon returning to work, according to Brian Mason, one of her deputies, Davis confiscated all copies of the County’s standard marriage certificate and replaced them with the Kim Davis Custom Edition, which “deletes all mentions of the County, fills in one of the blanks that would otherwise be the County with the Court’s styling, deletes her name, deletes all of the deputy clerk references, and in place of deputy clerk types in the name of Brian Mason, and has him initial rather than sign.”

So the struggle continues. In an interview with ABC News that came out today, Davis tried to explain why signing a marriage license for a gay couple violates her religious conscience, and some of these statements are helpful in helping us to get into Davis’s mind:

“I can’t put my name on a license that doesn’t represent what God ordained marriage to be,” she told a reporter. “They’re not valid in God’s eyes.”

Sounds like a classic claim of a violated religious conscience, doesn’t it? Davis can’t participate in the duties that the State of Kentucky requires of her office, she says, because of a religious objection. Most bloggers are focusing on whether the law entitles Davis to accommodations, and whether such accommodations are possible without placing an undue burden on a class of people, but I have been thinking about a different issue:

Is it possible that Davis only thinks that signing a gay couple’s marriage certificate would violate her religious conscience? Is it possible that even Kim Davis doesn’t understand Kim Davis’s motivations?

If we’re not dealing with a violation of religious conscience, what else might we be dealing with? I see three possible alternatives.

Open-Hearted Ignorance? Why are Clerks of Courts required to sign marriage licenses in the first place? Best I can tell, the Clerk’s function in this setting is merely to aver that all relevant documents are in order (i.e., “I looked for everything; it’s all there.”). Now, I’ve never seen a Kentucky marriage license, so I may be wrong here, but I have seen a California marriage license (my own), and as far as I can tell, the clerk is merely certifying that all of the documents that are required to execute a legal marriage contract are on file, that there are no valid legal objections to the marriage on file, and that the credentials of the person officiating (“solemnizing”) the marriage are approved by the State. In other words, the Clerk’s signature is merely an assurance that the paperwork is right. This fits with my intuitions about what a Clerk of Court’s job is more generally: Opening envelopes, cashing the money order you sent in to pay for your traffic ticket, checking boxes, and not losing things.

I wonder if perhaps Davis simply hasn’t thought carefully enough about what her signature on a marriage license—any marriage license–actually means. She’s in pretty deep now, and has dug in her heels, so she probably cannot be reached with reason alone, but it seems like someone ought to try. Who knows? Perhaps with time, perspective, and some discussion with people who love her and whom she trusts, Davis could be convinced that her signature is really just a bit of truth-telling (“Yep!  Everything’s on file!), and thus is in fact extremely consistent with her Christian values rather than an affront to them.

Disgust Masquerading as a Violated Religious Conscience? Second, I wonder whether Davis might be confusing disgust with a violation of religious conscience. Legal scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, as well as many social scientists, have written on the centrality of disgust to people’s anti-gay prejudices, and the Kim Davis situation may provide an interesting and never-before-seen variation on this theme. If Davis is disgusted by gay people or by gay marriage, then she might be hesitant to associate her name with a gay couple’s marriage license because disgust follows the laws of sympathetic magic: The things associated with you carry some of your traits along with them. In the same way that people don’t want to drink from a glass that once held a cockroach, those who are extremely disgusted by homosexuality or homosexual marriage might be unwilling to associate themselves—or their signatures—with a marriage license—a piece of paper—that has been filed by two gay people. After all, the signature has been a highly cherished representation of the self, one’s will, and one’s intentions, for 3,500 years.

If Davis’s problem is in fact not that her religious conscience has been violated, but instead is that she is disgusted by the idea of gay marriage, then the religious language can be removed from the debate entirely and we can start discussing instead what society should do with an elected public official who finds part of her work disgusting.

Weaponized Conscience? Finally, there is the possibility that Davis isn’t experiencing a genuine violation of her religious conscience at all, but instead is simply using that plea as a cudgel that enables her to impose burdens on a class of people whose behavior she (or, perhaps, she believes, God) dislikes. By Davis’s own account, she believes God has been “using” her through this debacle (“For God to use somebody like me, it’s so humbling,” she has said). I’d certainly like for her to explain that statement. It could mean a lot of things, but one thing it could mean is that this entire dust-up, in her heart of hearts, isn’t actually about “U.S. versus God & Davis:” Instead, in Davis’s heart of hearts, it could be about “God versus the U.S. via Davis.”

Take a moment to let that one sink in.

No Truth Serum

None of us, save perhaps those people in Davis’s most intimate inner circle, are ever going to know what’s really going on in Davis’s heart. Is her conscience really, truly, legitimately violated? Is she absolutely sure? Could she be disabused of that intuition by taking a little time to think about what a Clerk of the Courts actually does (remember, their job is merely to open envelopes, cash checks, check boxes, and not lose things) and what the Clerk’s signature on a marriage license actually means? Is her perceived violation of religious conscience just a case of projected disgust dressed in its Sunday best? Or is her plea of violated religious conscience a disingenuous one—a rhetorical weapon that Davis is using to impose a burden on a class of people whose behavior she (or, she thinks, God) dislikes?

The last possibility is the most interesting—and the most troubling, actually, for it raises an ominous but delightfully “meta” sort of question about religious conscience. And it’s a question that defenders of religious liberty—both liberal and conservative—need to take seriously. Should one’s religious (or non-religious) conscience be bothered if someone has debased the very notion of religious conscience by using it as moral cover for a less conscionable goal? I’m not saying she has, and I’m not saying she hasn’t, because I do not know.

But I’d certainly like to know, because the liberal compact is something like this: “You’re free to believe what you want, and I’m going to defend that freedom on your behalf. But it seems to me that there’s a caveat: “If you’re just messing around and don’t actually believe what you claim to believe, then don’t count on me to make good on my side of the bargain either.”

h/t Deb Lieberman.

Thinking Outside the Box: The Power of Apologies in Cooperative Agreements

TWO kids I know—let’s call them Jeff and Mimi–wanted a cat, so they begged their reluctant parents for months. Eventually the parents gave in, but they forced the kids into an agreement: “The cat box will need to be cleaned every day. We expect you to alternate days. If you miss your day, we’ll take fifty cents out of your allowance and give it to your sister/brother. If you like, you can think of the fifty-cent transfer as a ‘fine’ that we pay to your sister/brother for your failure to hold up your end of the agreement.” The kids agreed and Corbin the cat was purchased (or, rather, obtained from the Humane Society). The litter box-cleaning arrangement went well for three whole days, but compliance started to wane on day four. Hostilities began to simmer. Jeff became reluctant to clean the litter box on “his” days because of Mimi’s failures to keep up her end of the bargain, and vice versa.

“Recriminations” began to pile up.

After two weeks, the agreement was declared dead. The parents became the chief cleaners of the litter box. The father continues to wonder whether he should have read more game theory before even entertaining the idea of getting a cat.

Cooperative agreements like these tend to be dicey propositions: What’s Mimi supposed to do if Jeff fails to clean the box on his appointed day? Should he view it as a sign that Jeff no longer intends to honor the agreement (in which case she should stop honoring it herself, notwithstanding the $.50 fine that Jeff had to pay to her), or should she view it as a one-off aberration (in which case she might want to continue honoring the agreement)? It’s not clear, and that lack of clarity can make problems for the stability of such agreements.

Luis Martinez-Vaquero and his colleagues addressed this issue in a recent article that caught my eye. The paper is complex, but it’s full of interesting results (some quite counter-intuitive) about when strategic agents should be expected to make commitments, honor commitments, retaliate when those commitments are broken, and so forth. I suggest you give it a read if you are at all interested in these issues. But what really grabbed my interest was the authors’ exploration of the idea that the key to getting such agreements to “work” (by which I mean, “become evolutionarily stable*”) was to build in an apology-forgiveness system that causes agreement-violators to pay an additional cost (over and above the fine specified in the agreement itself) after a failure to cooperate, which might cause the defected-against partner to persist in the agreement despite the fact that it has been violated.

The researchers’ results enabled them to be surprisingly precise about the conditions under which highly cooperative strategies that used apologies and forgiveness in this way would evolve*: The costs of cooperating (cleaning the litter box) must be lower than the cost of the apology (the amount of money the deal-breaker voluntarily passes to his/her sibling), which in turn must be lower than the fine for non-compliance that is specified within the agreement itself (fifty cents). When those conditions are in place, you can get the evolution of actors who like to make agreements, accept agreements, honor agreements, and forgive breaches of agreements so that cooperation can be maintained even when those agreements are occasionally violated due to cello lessons that run late, or unscheduled trips to the emergency room, or geometry exams that simply must be studied for.

I’ve written here and there (and here) about the value of apologies and compensation in promoting forgiveness, but the results of Martinez-Vaquero and colleagues suggest (to me, anyway) that forgiveness-inducing gestures such as apologies and offers of compensation can come to possess a sort of fractal quality: People often overcome defections in their cooperative relationships through costly apologies, which promote forgiveness. Throughout the history of Western Civilization, various Leviathans have capitalized on the conflict-minimizing, cooperation-preserving power of costly apologies by institutionalizing these sorts of innovations within contracts and other commitment devices that specify fines and other sanctions if one party or the other fails to perform. But after the fine has been paid for failure to perform, what’s to keep the parties motivated to continue on with their agreement? Martinez-Vaquero et al.’s paper suggests that a little “apology payment” added on top of the fine might just do the trick. Apologies within apologies.

By the way, Jeff and Mimi’s parents are reviewing the terms of the old agreement later this week. Perhaps it can be made to work after all.

Reference:

Martinez-Vaquero, L. A., Han, T. A., Pereira, L. M., & Lennaerts, T. (2015). Apology and forgiveness evolve to resolve failures in cooperative agreements. Scientific Reports, 5: 10639.  doi:10.1038/srep10639.


 

*By which I mean “come to characterize the behavior of individuals in the population via a cultural learning mechanism that causes individuals to adopt the strategies of their most successful neighbors.”