Reason for a New Age

Posts Tagged ‘rationality’

Evolution, Instinct, and People – Part 1

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/01/16


As I pointed out in Money and Philosophy, whether an idea is good or bad isn’t based on whether it works on paper, but whether it works based on human nature. It’s very simple to say, “Give up everything you don’t need, care for others, don’t hurt others, don’t lie, stay monogamous, obey your parents.” But it’s also meaningless. Communists tried it, philosophers tried it, and religions tried it. People who were atheists or didn’t subscribe to any philosophy that said anything more concrete than “Figure it out, you’re not dumb.” ended up fighting wars, cheating on their wives, hording money, and all these other things as those who did subscribe to a religion or a pacifist-socialist philosophy.

Human nature is what human nature is. And one of those traits is the ability to justify any action in the terms of their beliefs. Ultimately, a solution has to be based on human nature and goad us all towards a more mutually satisfying way of behaving through exploiting our quirks, not denying them.

While this blog is principally concerned with politics and economics, the choices that you make in respect to these are dependent on understanding people. Thus the question of what foibles we have as a race are, is a question that needs to be answered before we can really make any choices. More importantly, if we don’t do that, our grandiose ideas are certain to fail.

A Primer on Evolution

The key thing to realize about evolution, is that it is stupid.

Many people will ask why a thing is the way it is, or what purpose it could possibly serve. The answer to this question is quite often that there is no reason. Evolution is a process that operates without logic or morality, doesn’t always win through, and relies on a great number of failures to produce any results.

Say for example that I write down a list of all possible qualities that a person might have. Blond hair, black hair, myopic, has legs 10% longer than average, has a violent temper, has no arms, etc. Now for each baby born, I roll a dice and choose three attributes to give from this list. Whatever that result is, is what the baby is left to live with. Does it make sense for a person to be born with no arms? Not really no, but evolution is a process of random, blind luck. Sometimes it comes up with something better, sometimes it doesn’t.

If you ask what that list is, then the answer is DNA. It’s simply a list of random toggles which, through each generation, get munged just slightly to produce something new and interesting. There’s a very strong preference for the average, but there certainly is no controls against myopia, sterility, baldness, or any other thing that seems rather useless.

And if one person is given two qualities of which one is stupid and one is very very good, it might end up that the stupid bit of genetic material hangs on for tens of thousands of generations. If it’s not stupid enough to get us killed before we breed, like having our right eye connect to the left brain and left eye connect to the right, then it just carries on with no particular purpose.

Evolution results in slapdash results. There is no consistent logic to what comes of it. The only thing that can be said about what comes out of it, is that you’ll have something which is successful.

The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma

There is an area of study called Game Theory, which essentially seeks to determine the best strategies for human interactions. One of the examples of this is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two prisoners are given the chance to inform on the other or not. If one informs on his comrade to the police, he goes free, while the comrade goes to jail for 10 years. If neither informs, they both get a 6-month sentence. If they both inform, they get a 5 year sentence.

If you assume your opponent to be selfish, he will testify on you, hoping to go free.

If you assume your opponent to be selfless, he won’t testify on you, because that would simply be wrong.

So the question becomes, how likely is a person to act selfishly versus selflessly?

Let’s say that only 30% of everyone is selfish. That means that there is a 30% chance that your opponent is selfish, but it also means that he thinks there’s a 30% chance that you are selfish. Your wisest course of action isn’t based on whether your opponent is selfish, but rather on whether either of you are. And unfortunately, even with only 30% of the world being selfish, the odds of gathering two selfless people out of a random selection is only 49%. Statistically, you either will act selfishly, or you should assume your opponent will act selfishly. Thus, you end up testifying.

Most people would, of course, vote that the number of people in the world who are selfish much greater than that.

But now, let’s look at the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this case, we have a couple of career criminals, who continue to work and get arrested together.

If both of us know that we are going to continue working together, then selfish or selfless, our selfish interest is that of the team, rather than that of ourselves.

Does this mean that we should simply trust our comrade? Well no, because if he knows that you’ll just trust him no-matter what, then he loses nothing by testifying on you. You’ll continue to work together and get captured together, and he’ll continue to get let off free each time because you won’t inform on him. Hence we add a retributive factor. If our comrade believes that if he betrays you this time, you’ll betray him next time (or simply hunt him down and murder him), then he has to play it safe.

If he is selfish, he will not want to risk the 5 or 10 year sentences, and so will act to not lose your trust in future iterations.

If he is selfless, he won’t testify on you simply because that would be wrong.

In either case, you win. The selfish motivation becomes the wisest motivation.

The average outcome for the non-iterative version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a 5 year sentence. The average outcome for the iterative is a 6-month sentence. Given the option, you are better to work with a team of people you know and trust than to always have to deal with those who you don’t.

Humans are Pack Animals

You might say that if the Prisoner’s Dilemma prefers “teams” then all animals should be pack animals. But of course a pack relies on there being enough supplies to support the whole team, and it requires for there to be an advantage in bonding together. If a creature is doing sufficiently well alone or operating in close quarters to your own species would simply deplete the food supply, they will simply continue on in this less-than-optimal configuration. Like I pointed out, evolution doesn’t seek the wisest solution, just the one which happened to work well enough up to that point in time.

But humans are, most certainly, pack animals. To offer a small proof, let’s examine these cases:

Your spouse dies.

Your friend dies.

Your favorite movie-star dies.

A soldier in your country’s army is killed.

An old man whom you don’t know died of natural causes, somewhere.

A soldier in the enemy country’s army is killed.

I think you will agree that for each level down that you go, the odds are that you will go from “terribly upset” to “unconcerned” to possibly “cheerful”. Even if it doesn’t get to “cheerful”, most likely any upset you will have for the poor enemy soldier is going to be more a political anger than a feeling of grief.

Certainly, a person could develop a natural feeling that all humans are part of his team, but our natural instincts go towards familiarity. People who we expect to deal with in mutually beneficial ways, we gain a dependence on, those we expect to deal with in antagonistic ways, we feel anger towards.

As rational beings, we would be able to make such alliances and enmities based simply on game theory. We wouldn’t need these gentle pushes by instinct and brain chemistry to feel happy around some, angry around others. But what worked for humanity was working as a team. And so evolution developed our innate programming to encourage such interactions without having to think about it rationally.

But of course, because of this humans are irrational beings.

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