Friday, February 8, 2008

The Frogs Are Swarming in the Milk

Going over the transcript of the Locus interview I did last July. I am grateful that Locus gives its interviewees the opportunity to "clarify or expand upon" aspects of such transcripts; I had no idea that such a smart guy as myself could be so inarticulate and unfocused. During the course of the actual interview I thought I was performing pretty damn well — at least, everyone in the room was chuckling at all the right points. But either they were just humouring me, or digressions and clever dives down irrelevant alleys don't translate well onto paper. Not to mention the number of sentences I evidently finished with nonverbal gestures. Either that or I'm some kind of closet narcoleptic in denial, with an unfortunate tendency to nod off in mid-sentence. You’d think someone would have mentioned it by now.

Anyway, "clarify and expand upon" I did, to the point where I now seem both profane and articulate. The only problem that remains has to do with Locus's standard policy of formatting these interview things — to wit, they omit the questions to which the interviewee is responding, printing instead an extended monologue innocent of context. And of course, because different questions provoke different answers, said monologue tends to take sudden and aerodynamically-impossible turns in weird directions with no warning. For example, take the following snippet:
... which would, of course, explain the underlying Native-American subtext of the rifters trilogy. The whole saga can be seen as an extended metaphor for the history of Inuit seal-hunting culture in the eighteenth century. The frogs are swarming in the milk. Which at least is an improvement over those big hairy bats, I guess. At least you could hit those with rulers...

Locus assures me that their readership is used to interviews with authors who are apparent victims of multiple personality disorder. I'll take their word for it. But I'm still a bit worried that all you'd need to do is insert a couple of outbursts of cackling hysterical laughter into the transcript to turn me into Tom Cruise.

Anyway, I don't know when the interview goes to press, but here's a snippet to tide you over:

I've tried to create villains. Once I tried to base one on a specific guy I knew in real life, but when my real-life perceptions ended up on the page they seemed more caricature than character; the dude was such a smarmy dick that I might as well have given him a mustache to twirl. The only way I could make him believable on the page was to make him more sympathetic than he actually is in real life, to give him enough depth that the reader would say, 'Yeah, you can kind of see why he's the way he is.' I wish I hadn't had to do that; he really is a complete dick here in the real world.

I of all people should know that moral convictions do not improve one's fitness. Ethics are not an evolutionarily stable strategy. Every time you look closely at altruistic behavior in nature, you find that it's ultimately selfish. A ground squirrel who sees a threat will raise the alarm when there are relatives around, but not otherwise; he's saving his own genes, even if his alarm call draws lethal attention to himself. Animals do fairly sophisticated subconscious processing in their heads. Take ducks. Ducks sometimes adopt ducklings from other broods, which seems counterintuitive; why would any creature in Darwin's universe take a competitor's genes under its wing? But it turns out that the adoptees are always kept in this outer buffer zone, and the parent's real kids are kept in closer. The adoptees are thus more vulnerable to predators; they're being used as cannon fodder (although I guess we'd call them National Guard these days). Every time we see an act of altruism in nature, it ultimately comes down to inclusive fitness.

"I really should learn to internalize that. I need to become more opportunistic, more of a sociopath. Sociopaths tend to make a lot more money than I do."

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10 Comments:

Blogger Peter Turney said...

I of all people should know that moral convictions do not improve one's fitness. Ethics are not an evolutionarily stable strategy.

What about Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation? Doesn't this suggest that ethics may be an evolutionary stable strategy?

http://tinyurl.com/2k2jxx
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http://tinyurl.com/39ru5y

February 9, 2008 at 12:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Yes, but only when it benefits the "ethical" individual; that's a pretty flexible definition that any sociopath would be perfectly copacetic with.
Sociopaths aren't evil on principle, they're merely opportunistic. Saying "I'll be good as long as it benefits me" is a far cry from "I'm going to sabotage my own interests on principle, because I have ethical objections to the way you treated this other person".

Remember, when I say "evolutionarily stable strategy", I'm using the classic definition: a strategy which in noninvasible by cheaters. My problems with some of Axelrod et al's arguments are not so much with implementation as with context. Reciprocal strategies work great in small communities where everyone knows everyone else, reputations spread quickly, and memories are long. We no longer live in such communities— at least, we don't have to. Robert Hare details the foraging strategy of the modern sociopath: dive into a new social environment, pillage it with your glib smiles and subtle backstabbing, and then move on. Hit with the tit, in other words, and then get out before tat comes home to roost. Alternatively, one can stay put physically but still prosper because modern population densities bring reams of victims into your grasp like fish being swept downstream into a weir. We all know a certain someone who always seems to have an enthusiastic circle of supporters, none of who have known them all that long — and in the background, an ever-growing retinue of ex-friends.

Yes, there are appeals to the variability of human behaviour: "What about the guy who risks his life to help a stranger, even though there's no chance for payback? If altruism is really selfish then nobody should ever do that, but since they sometimes do, we are good and noble beings". But the drives and instincts that motivate us are not optimally fine-tuned; as many have said before, it's never been survival of the fittest, but survival of the most-adequate. We don't help someone in need because we've consciously done the math, any more than a bird sits down and calculates her expected number of offspring before building a nest; We do it because it feels good, it feels right, and the reason it does that is because such behaviour, in the past, increased fitness more often than not. It's a rule of thumb, expressed in dopamine; it doesn't have to work 100% of the time to be selected for. Fish still lunge at worms twitching in the water column, even though every now and then one of those "worms" turns out to be dangling at the end of an anglerfish's dorsal spine. (If, on the other hand, some mechanism arose that was more fine-tuned, it would mop the floor with the competition. Maybe that's where culture comes in.)

Fehr and Renninger's response to these points strikes me as a bit disingenuous; you haven't disproved the revenge-by-altruism perspective just because people who've had a chance to get to know each other interact differently than groups of strangers. All you've done is introduce a social confound so that your experiment is reflecting two sources of variation instead of one. (And their claim that "Now that we know a body of evidence supports the notion that Homo sapiens is the only species capable of strong altruism" is astonishing, given that they didn't cite even a single case involving a nonhuman species prior to drawing that conclusion — a little like describing work on bullfrogs and then drawing conclusions about pigeons).

But when it comes right down to it, I suspect all we're arguing about is levels of selection. Group selection, anathema for decades, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, but whether you look to the level of the genes or to that of the group, it all comes down to whether a given behaviour improves fitness; and fitness, by definition, is still measured in terms of gene frequency. Altruism used to mean benefiting another at your own expense; if you want to redefine the term to include punishing another at your own expense (F&R's "strong altruism") in order to benefit your social group, well, okay. But IMO you've then broadened the definition to the point where it can pretty much mean anything.

February 9, 2008 at 2:33 PM  
Blogger Peter Turney said...

Sociopaths aren't evil on principle, they're merely opportunistic.

I think you're using the word sociopath in an unusual and provocative way, but I'll accept your usage.

"I'll be good as long as it benefits me"

Who is "me"? Suppose I view myself as a cultural algorithm running on a biological substrate. That is, suppose I identify myself as a collection of memes, rather than a collection of genes. Then I may be willing to sacrifice my genetic identity if it benefits my meme identity. In other words, perhaps biological altruism can arise out of the conflict between biological evolution and cultural evolution. In an older terminology, perhaps my personal values can triumph over my biology.

February 9, 2008 at 3:19 PM  
Blogger Peter Turney said...

By the way, I loved Blindsight.

February 9, 2008 at 3:22 PM  
Blogger AR said...

That is, suppose I identify myself as a collection of memes, rather than a collection of genes.

Isn't this the basis of transhumanism? That is is desirable to preserve human civilization even if it means the extinction of homo sapiens in the process?

February 9, 2008 at 8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...The frogs are swarming in the milk. Which at least is an improvement over those big hairy bats, I guess. At least you could hit those with rulers...

God, that's wonderful. Dutch Schultz should have gone out on such a note. Thanks, Peter, nothing like a touch of surrealism after a four-hour lecture. Gives me an idea of what my students must have been hearing towards the end there.

- Lars

February 9, 2008 at 8:15 PM  
Blogger Peter Turney said...

Isn't this the basis of transhumanism?

Transhumanism may be one example where memes dominate over genes, but I was thinking of, say, Giordano Bruno.

February 9, 2008 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Peter Turney said...

Or, maybe better, Socrates.

February 9, 2008 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Peter Turney said...

I think you're using the word sociopath in an unusual and provocative way, but I'll accept your usage.

That's not my intention. I'm defining "sociopath" as anyone who lacks a conscience and is therefore unconstrained by moral standards; as far as I know that's a pretty standard definition (at least, it's the one offered up by the guy who invented the Hare Psychopathy Checklist).

Who is "me"?


That is a good question.

Suppose I view myself as a cultural algorithm running on a biological substrate. That is, suppose I identify myself as a collection of memes, rather than a collection of genes. Then I may be willing to sacrifice my genetic identity if it benefits my meme identity. In other words, perhaps biological altruism can arise out of the conflict between biological evolution and cultural evolution. In an older terminology, perhaps my personal values can triumph over my biology.

I completely buy that. The world is full of people whose behaviour &mdash maladaptive in terms of fitness — reflects personal/cultural values. Most of that maladaptive behavior results from evolutionary processes (sugar cravings left over from a time that sugars were scarce; vasectomies which compromise reproductive fitness but enhance the body's instinctive perception of fitness; you know the list), but there are other behaviours (some of my own, for example) that don't even make sense in that context. Perhaps that's a "triumph" of meme over biology, but I wonder if at least some of it might be better described as corrupted wiring.

Take self-mutilators, for example; not a lot of fitness value in cutting yourself. But are these folks forcing themselves to overcome their natural aversion to injury — "triumphing" over their biology — or have they simply been damaged to the point where their pain/pleasure circuitry is rewarding them for maladaptive behaviour? (In which case they're not triumphing over anything; they're going after the same feedback everyone does.) And how much culturally "normal" behaviour can be classified the same way? Certainly there's no shortage of religious practices around the world, embraced as virtuous by whole cultures, which make about as much sense as as self-mutilation.

But I'll admit to another, more constructive aspect to your point which actually touches on another bit of that same Locus interview, one in which I compared reproductive and literary legacies. A book — a lifetime of books — doesn't contain nearly as much information as a human genome, but there are far more replicates of that information and they travel into the future intact. Whereas every time I have a kid (if I had kids), my genetic information gets diluted by 50% with each replication. By the time you get down to great grandkids, there's not much of the original left to speak of — but the books, in one form or another, persist. So, yes; I would like to think of "myself" as being more encoded in the culture than the biology.

Of course, all of my "cultural" contributions are fixated on biology, so I'm either having it both ways or striking out twice. Your call.


.

February 10, 2008 at 10:14 AM  
Blogger Peter Turney said...

A book — a lifetime of books — doesn't contain nearly as much information as a human genome

The human genome requires 350 to 750 megabytes.

http://tinyurl.com/3dow2y
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Isaac Asimov wrote 515 books.

http://tinyurl.com/2vdxxt

It looks like a close call to me. There are some issues about compression that make it difficult to judge.

February 10, 2008 at 11:01 AM  

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