Category: Uncategorized

The End of the Map

Simon Garfield in the Wall Street Journal:

There is something disappointing about the austere potential perfection of the new maps. The satellites above us have seen all there is to see of the world; technically, they have mapped it all. But satellites know nothing of the beauty of hand-drawn maps, with their Spanish galleons and sea monsters, and they cannot comprehend wanderlust and the desire for discovery. Today we can locate the smallest hamlet in sub-Saharan Africa or the Yukon, but can we claim that we know them any better? Do the irregular and unpredictable fancies of the older maps more accurately reflect the strangeness of the world?

The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?

Among cartographic misfirings, the disaster of Apple Maps is rather minor, and may even have resulted in some happy accidents—in the same way that Christopher Columbus discovered America when he was aiming for somewhere more eastern and exotic. The history of cartography is nothing if not a catalog of hit-and-miss, a combination of good fortune and misdirection.

More here.

Onion Nature Program: “The Chimpanzee: Still Dumber than the Dumbest Human”

“It is true that chimps have been observed using tools, but their tools are little more than sticks. This hammer is an infinitely better tool than a stick, and it is not even that good relative to other human tools. … Chimpanzee habitats are being destroyed, and the species is on the brink of extinction. Indeed, not only are humans capable of wiping out chimps with inventions like bulldozers and dynamite, they have even developed a system of ethics that justifies it.”

New Thinking: Cecilia Heyes on the Cultural Origins of Cultural Learning

Culture has rightfully become an important topic in human evolutionary biology in the last few decades. Our ability to rapidly adapt to new ecological and social environments is due in large part to our impressive ability to acquire ideas, technologies, and behaviors from others and, over time, to incrementally improve upon them. Other species learn behaviors and technologies from others, but they do not do so at nearly the same frequency and scope, nor with the same fidelity. We truly have exploited the ‘cultural niche’ (a term used by Boyd, Richerson, and Henrich [2010], and stolen by me to name this website). That second inheritance system—a cultural inheritance system in addition to a genetic inheritance system, which is more than just increased intelligence—has a colossal impact on our phenotypes, and has likely been a powerful force in human evolution for long enough that to marginalize it would be unwise.

Most researchers who study culture and human evolution would agree that the systems that make cultural learning possible, such as social learning, teaching, imitation, and theory of mind, are adaptations that arose from genetic evolution. Since the cognitive mechanisms for abilities like sight, memory, and emotions are genetically inherited, why shouldn’t cultural learning mechanisms be as well? In a new special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B about “New Thinking” in human cognitive evolution (which I recently wrote about here), Cecilia Heyes argues that even the mechanisms that allow for cultural learning are learned culturally.

To step back, this may sound like an odd claim. Cultural learning to culturally learn sounds paradoxical, but all she argues is that the same processes used to facilitate cultural learning are acquired non-genetically during development, and non-genetic inheritance is often used as a working definition for culture. She proposes that through our early social interactions, the cognitive systems that we use for asocial learning, or individual learning, are tweaked in different ways that allow the input and processing of social information. This will make more sense when I talk about social learning, but Heyes first provides evidence that cultural learning can be culturally inherited by talking about reading. Continue reading

What is the “New Thinking” about Human Cognitive Evolution?

In 2011, a conference convened to discuss what they labeled as the “New Thinking” (NT) about human cognitive evolution. The NT challenges many tenets of how evolutionary psychology has been pursued over the last twenty years. The journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B has recently published a special issue about the NT which challenges virtually all of the assumptions on which evolutionary psychologists have based their research for the last two decades and offers a drastically new way of approaching the evolution of human cognition that they claim is both more theoretically feasible and more empirically approachable. Most of this review is based on the introduction (like most of the articles in the issue, it’s behind a paywall) to the issue written by one of the editors of the issue, Cecilia Heyes of Oxford, who also contributed a review article to the issue.

Since the early 1990s, evolutionary psychology has become an influential yet controversial addition to the study of human cognitive evolution. The most popular brand of evolutionary psychology is that introduced by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the University of California, Santa Barbara, often referred to as the Santa Barbara School or simply as Evolutionary Psychology (EP), capitalized. EP developed out of earlier scientific movements like the sociobiology and human behavioral ecology which attempted to apply evolutionary concepts to subjects to which evolution had not traditionally been considered relevant, such as social behavior and family dynamics.

EP has been popular in the media. Reporters tend to enthusiastically report research findings from EP, most likely because the field has the impression of confronting directly the so-called nature vs. nurture dichotomy and allows for spectacular headlines about sex and violence. Psychologists and journalists have produced a number of high profile books about EP such as Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, and a persistent march of books about the evolutionary history of X (where X could be art, religion, politics, war, morality, &c., &c.). Continue reading

How to find Hamilton’s Rule

In 1964, William Hamilton published two papers that revolutionized the study of the evolution of altruism. His famous eponymous equation was rb>c, and it purported to show the conditions in which a gene for altruism could spread in a population. A trait for altruism is difficult to spread in a population since it is easily exploited by others who benefit from the altruist’s actions without returning the favor. Hamilton approached this problem by identifying a particular condition in which the gene for altruism (in reality, it is almost certainly not a single gene, but it can be thought of roughly as the inherited components of the genotype that lead to an altruistic phenotype) would be more likely to be shared. If altruistic acts could be focused only on kin who are likely to share the gene from common descent, then the gene would be advantageous and its frequency in the population would grow.

I’m not going to discuss the real life implications of Hamilton’s Rule here, nor will I discuss the empirical evidence for its application to social evolution. I’ve just recently learned how Hamilton’s Rule was first derived (using the book Mathematical Models of Social Evolution by Richard McElreath and Robert Boyd) and I want to repeat it here because I think it’s interesting and I don’t want to forget how it was done. A few years after Hamilton published his pair of papers, his rule was re-derived using the mathematical methods of covariance genetics introduced by George Price. That more recent version also arrives at rb>c, though its implications and assumptions are more clear (apparently, according to McElreath and Boyd’s book; I haven’t worked through it yet)

The model uses a tool for studying altruism known as the prisoner’s dilemma. This is one of the better known scenarios in game theory so I’ll only discuss it briefly. In short, it poses a situation in which two players—let’s call them P1 and P2—must decide whether they will cooperate with the other in order to receive a mutual benefit at a cost. There must be a cost to the cooperation for it to be considered altruism; if an act was of mutual benefit to both, then its explanation would not require any extra explanation. I will introduce a more concrete description shortly. All of the scores described are for P1. If P1 decides to cooperate and P2 also cooperates, then P1 receives the benefit of the cooperation, b, though the cooperative act comes at a cost, c. More precisely, bc represents the average payoff over all interactions between cooperators—each individual interaction will be to the benefit of one at a cost to the other, but over all interactions, the payoff will be bc. However, if P1 chooses not to cooperate—to defect—and P2 decides to cooperate, then P1 will receive the benefit at no cost. Conversely, if P1 decides to cooperate and P2 decides to defect, then P1 will receive only the cost. If they both defect, then P1 will receive 0.

The payoffs in each cell are for P1.

P2 Cooperates P2 Defects
P1 Cooperates bc c
P1 Defects b 0

Continue reading

Whence Mega-Empires?

Cyrus the Great

“Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she urinated in such enormous quantities that it filled his cities and swamped the whole of Asia,” writes Herodotus in his history of the Greek war with Persia. Astyages was the king of the Median Empire which at its peak controlled about 2.8 million square kilometers from western Anatolia to nearly the Indus River in modern Pakistan.

The king’s magi interpreted the dream as a prophecy that Mandane’s son should one day be called king. Although she was of royal rank, Astyages sought to avoid the birth of a son of royal class by marrying her to Cambyses, a man from a good family in Persia—which was then under Median dominion—yet of a much lesser rank than she. When Mandane had a son, Astyages, fearing overthrow, handed the child over to one of his kinsmen with orders to have the child killed.

Of course, as happens in these stories, the surviving child, Cyrus, rose to power and established the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire at around 500 BCE. He first conquered the Median Empire and rapidly spread west annexing Mesopotamia, Egypt, the rest of Anatolia, and eastern Thrace. To the east, he expanded south to the Arabian Sea and north into Scythian territory. At its peak the Persian Empire controlled over 5.5 million square kilometers, the largest empire that had ever existed. Continue reading

Dawkins on E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth

Last week, Richard Dawkins published a harsh review of Edward O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth.

I am not being funny when I say of Edward Wilson’s latest book that there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects (which he knows better than any man alive), and it was a good idea to write a book comparing these two pinnacles of social evolution, but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory. In particular, Wilson now rejects “kin selection” (I shall explain this below) and replaces it with a revival of “group selection”—the poorly defined and incoherent view that evolution is driven by the differential survival of whole groups of organisms.

Nobody doubts that some groups survive better than others. What is controversial is the idea that differential group survival drives evolution, as differential individual survival does. The American grey squirrel is driving our native red squirrel to extinction, no doubt because it happens to have certain advantages. That’s differential group survival. But you’d never say of any part of a squirrel that it evolved to promote the welfare of the grey squirrel over the red. Wilson wouldn’t say anything so silly about squirrels. He doesn’t realise that what he does say, if you examine it carefully, is as implausible and as unsupported by evidence.

I would not venture such strong criticism of a great scientist were I not in good company. The Wilson thesis is based on a 2010 paper that he published jointly with two mathematicians, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. When this paper appeared in Nature it provoked very strong criticism from more than 140 evolutionary biologists, including a majority of the most distinguished workers in the field. They include Alan Grafen, David Queller, Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Emlen, Malte Andersson, Stuart West, Richard Wrangham, Bernard Crespi, Robert Trivers and many others. These may not all be household names but let me assure you they know what they are talking about in the relevant fields.

I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon where a mother beams down on a military parade and proudly exclaims, “There’s my boy, he’s the only one in step.” Is Wilson the only evolutionary biologist in step? Scientists dislike arguing from authority, so perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned the 140 dissenting authorities. But one can make a good case that the 2010 paper would never have been published in Nature had it been submitted anonymously and subjected to ordinary peer-review, bereft of the massively authoritative name of Edward O Wilson. If it was authority that got the paper published, there is poetic justice in deploying authority in reply.

Then there’s the patrician hauteur with which Wilson ignores the very serious drubbing hisNature paper received. He doesn’t even mention those many critics: not a single, solitary sentence. Does he think his authority justifies going over the heads of experts and appealing directly to a popular audience, as if the professional controversy didn’t exist—as if acceptance of his (tiny) minority view were a done deal? “The beautiful theory [kin selection, see below] never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed.” Yes it did and does work, and no it hasn’t collapsed. For Wilson not to acknowledge that he speaks for himself against the great majority of his professional colleagues is—it pains me to say this of a lifelong hero —an act of wanton arrogance.

The greater part of the review is a lucid explanation and defense of inclusive fitness and kin selection as viable concepts in Darwinian theory. That portion would serve well as a quick general introduction to the idea or as a brief refresher that’s occasionally necessary to keep the string of ideas in order.

He ends,

I hope I have made it clear that kin selection is logically entailed by standard Darwinian theory, even if the B and C terms work out in such a way that collateral kin are not cared for in practice. Natural selection without kin selection would be like Euclid without Pythagoras. Wilson is, in effect, striding around with a ruler, measuring triangles to see whether Pythagoras got it right. Kin selection was always logically implied by the neo-Darwinian synthesis. It just needed somebody to point it out—Hamilton did it.

Edward Wilson has made important discoveries of his own. His place in history is assured, and so is Hamilton’s. Please do read Wilson’s earlier books, including the monumental The Ants, written jointly with Bert Hölldobler (yet another world expert who will have no truck with group selection). As for the book under review, the theoretical errors I have explained are important, pervasive, and integral to its thesis in a way that renders it impossible to recommend. To borrow from Dorothy Parker, this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force. And sincere regret.

More here.