Saturday, November 10, 2007

Subjective Status or Fooling Our Genes

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, a very long time ago, it occurred to me that I was embedded in the ideal social system--everyone at the top of his own ladder. The small group of students who put on plays knew that they were the important people; the rest of us were there to provide an audience. The small group seriously involved in Young Republicans and Young Democrats knew that they were the important people. The rest of us were there to be persuaded to come to a meeting once a year and vote them into the offices that might be the first small stepping stones to a political career. The small group ... . The point occurred to me, as best I remember, after discovering that the foreign student with whom I had been discussing international military matters was the son of the defense minister of Pakistan. From his standpoint, in his world, he was a VIP--just like all the rest of us, which made it a society where he could comfortably fit in.

While waking up this morning, I was thinking about the current version of the same system. I am at least tangentially a part of a lot of different sub-societies. In some I am myself a VIP. In others I am a moderately important person (MIP?), either directly or through my connections with someone else who is a VIP. In others, I am an entirely unimportant person--but, of course, I don't spend much time thinking about those.

I knew there was some deep significance to all of this but was at first too sleepy to realize what it was. But it then occurred to me that, just like sex, it was an example of the brain defeating the genes.

We are designed, like all products of Darwinian evolution, for reproductive success--but, while that is the objective of our genes, it is not our objective. Sex is pleasurable, pregnancy sometimes inconvenient, so we have invented birth control and various other sorts of non-procreative sex as ways of getting what we want instead of what we are designed for.

Similarly for status. The reason humans want status is that, in the environment in which our species evolved, status--especially but not exclusively for males--led to reproductive success. Important men were more likely to get a mate, more likely to get more than one mate, more able to get the resources to keep their children alive, more likely to get their children into a position where they too would have status and its advantages.

The fact that my brother in law is one of the world's top bridge players is of no use at all for my reproductive success--but it gives me a little extra status, and the pleasure thereof, if I happen to be associating with bridge players. The fact that a major figure in the Open Source movement was familiar with my work gives me no advantage in reproductive success, but it gave me a jolt of status-pleasure when I came up to him after he gave a talk, introduced myself as "David Friedman," had him ask me if I was "David Director Friedman," and suddenly became one of the Important People in the room. It also got me invited out to a Chinese restaurant after the talk with the people who had organized it.

If, among the multitude of status markers that each of us has in each of a multitude of contexts, we chose at random, it would be merely, from the genetic standpoint, random error, a failure of our genes to properly manipulate us. But we don't. We choose to focus on those contexts where we have relatively high status, to think of them as important, remember them, judge ourselves by them. Which makes it, not random error, but a triumph of the human mind over its genetic puppet masters.

31 Comments:

At 2:21 PM, November 10, 2007, Anonymous Anon22 said...

You say that birth control in part represents a triumph of the mind over genes - but is this really the case? The underlying behaviors, desires, and mental states coded by the genes are still there. Wouldn't a true triumph of the mind over genes be the ability to turn the sex drive on and off at will? Or to change the sex drive into something else, resulting in a kind of transhumanism?

Of course you've also carefully avoided the real question, which is - are capitalism, libertarianism, socialism, or communism selected for by evolution? And if so, what would be involved in a triumph of the mind over those things?

 
At 2:43 PM, November 10, 2007, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Anon - would you really want to turn your sex drive off? For the people who are successful in getting laid, I would argue that recreational sex is the ultimate triumph of mind over genes. Leveraging the reward infrastructure set up for sex to get the reward without the costs.

I agree that it would be useful to be able to turn the sex drive off when you were having trouble getting laid, though. As a married man, I have sometimes wished for a pill that would make me uninterested in women besides my spouse.

 
At 10:29 PM, November 10, 2007, Anonymous Anon21 said...

Those are surprising remarks coming from someone who has stated their support for polyamory in the past. The Patri Friedman I know from Catallarchy would just say that looking at other women is an aspect of maximizing inclusive fitness and therefore must be ok. :)

 
At 12:22 AM, November 11, 2007, Blogger Jonathan said...

Patri: back in the 1980s, I became so fixated on my girlfriend that I genuinely wasn't interested in other women. It can happen. But we're now living in different countries, married to different people. So it goes.

 
At 5:08 AM, November 11, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

There can't truly be a triumph of mind over genes until minds and genes actually become reproductive competitors. As Anon22 pointed out, that would require transhumanism. Until then, our minds are merely parasites (or more accurately obligate commensals) on genes.

David writes: "We choose to focus on those contexts where we have relatively high status, to think of them as important, remember them, judge ourselves by them. Which makes it, not random error, but a triumph of the human mind over its genetic puppet masters."

I don't agree, for two major reasons. (a) Status is one of the ways humans control resources. High status primates (whatever the type of status) get more resources when there is social competition. David may have meant something like that in his earlier paragraphs. And (b) the thrill of status is just another epigenetic urge we feel just like the thrill of orgasm. That thrill is hard-wired in our brains just like sex, by our genes.

Right now, the closest we can come to triumphing over our "genetic puppet masters" is to not reproduce. In which case the genes win anyway, since other organisms (or other humans) will reproduce in our place.

Second closest might be to reproduce through denying some epigenetic rules the genes have placed in our brains: but then the genes have won once again because they define reproduction as a win, and they created the conditions (the other contradictory epigenetic rules) that determined your actions.

"What is rational choice anyway? I suggest that rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules."
E. O. Wilson, in "Consilience"

 
At 11:46 AM, November 11, 2007, Anonymous RKN said...

We are designed, like all products of Darwinian evolution, for reproductive success--but, while that is the objective of our genes, it is not our objective. Sex is pleasurable, pregnancy sometimes inconvenient, so we have invented birth control and various other sorts of non-procreative sex as ways of getting what we want instead of what we are designed for.

Seriously, please explain how genes can be selected for reproductive success and simultaneously selected to build brains that want to defeat reproductive success.

 
At 12:02 PM, November 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who is your brother-in-law?

Signed,

Curious bridge player.

 
At 1:28 PM, November 11, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anon 21 writes:

"The Patri Friedman I know from Catallarchy would just say that looking at other women is an aspect of maximizing inclusive fitness and therefore must be ok. :)"

Whereas the Patri I know would never confuse the positive statement that we have certain characteristics because they led to reproductive success in the past with the normative statement that we ought to act to achieve reproductive success.

And I've known him longer than you have.

rkn wants to know how genes can be both selected for reproductive success and to build brains that want to defeat reproductive success.

Intelligence is very useful for reproductive success, both for interactions with the non-human environment and interactions with other humans. Unfortunately for the genes, that same intelligence can be used to detect the conflict of interest between us and them and, to some degree, defeat them in favor of us.

Hence intelligence leads to more reproductive success than stupidity, but less than if it didn't have that secondary effect. Given enough time, one would expect the genes to come up with a phenotype that is both intelligent and strongly philoprogenitive--but our minds adapt to new circumstances much faster than our genes do, so they haven't done it yet.

Curious Bridge Player wants to know who my brother in law is.

My sister is married to Chip Martel.

 
At 4:17 PM, November 11, 2007, Anonymous RKN said...

Intelligence is very useful for reproductive success, both for interactions with the non-human environment and interactions with other humans. Unfortunately for the genes, that same intelligence can be used to detect the conflict of interest between us and them and, to some degree, defeat them in favor of us.

That's fine, but the question remains, on the gene-centric view of natural selection, which I assume you believe (ignore this otherwise), why would the genes which produced the ability to "detect the conflict" have been selected for? Since "detecting the conflict" can cause inhibition of reproductive success.

Hence intelligence leads to more reproductive success than stupidity ,...

Like many things, intelligence in humans is measured along a distribution. And it seems to me that there is evidence from many cultures around the world indicating that lower intelligence correlates with higher population. Not that more necessarily means successful, but they generally track each other.

 
At 5:00 PM, November 11, 2007, Anonymous Oog said...

We not only need to be good at reproducing. We need to be good at competing for resources as well.

I can certainly imagine how our ability to have higher priorities than reproducing can give us greater reproductive success, in the long run.

I don't think recreational sex has defeated our genes. We still, after all, reproduce. We just spend more time competing for resources than before.

We will have organisms that reproduce for as long as past reproductive success is a deciding factor in determining what organisms inhabit our universe.

The only way I can think of to 'defeat' your genes is to stay alive forever.

 
At 5:06 PM, November 11, 2007, Anonymous Anon21 said...

why would the genes which produced the ability to "detect the conflict" have been selected for?

I think I can defend David on this point. Remember that traits evolving from natural selection do not have to perfectly satisfy the requirements of perpetuating genes; they merely have to be "good enough" for a specific environment. (In fact, sometimes they can have deleterious effects, as long as they increase genetic fitness.) According to wikipedia, the changes in the primate brain which led to the anatomically modern human about 250,000 years ago happened relatively rapidly (over about 20-50,000 yrs or so). Thus it's possible that intelligence gave our species a survival advantage in the specific niche in which we lived at that time, but here 200,000 years later those organisms have invented language, agriculture, writing, philsoophy, and ultimately David Friedman's blog where it is advanced that humans can "triumph" over their genes through birth control if they choose to.

 
At 10:24 PM, November 11, 2007, Blogger Russell said...

Let me guess: Eric Steven Raymond. Cuz I know that we've never been in the same room together nor gone to a Chinese dinner together.

 
At 7:24 AM, November 12, 2007, Anonymous Arthur B. said...

There's a curious paradox related to this I've been contemplating.

I could probably sell my sperm for some money and the work involved is not really exhausting.

The upside for me is a decent amount of cash to buy electronic gadgets or dinners. But better than that, I get to spread my genotype all over with absolutely no responsability and no cost to me. It seems win-win for me and my gene.

For some strange reason, I would not consider it. I cannot stand the idea of having biological children somewhere I don't know of, children I cannot raise myself. This might be related to the urge I feel for propagating my culture but donating sperm does not reduce the number of children I can actually raise, so it doesn't really explain it.

My brain is preventing my genes for getting an extraordinary deal, but I can't see why it's doing so.

 
At 9:27 AM, November 12, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

That's fine, but the question remains, on the gene-centric view of natural selection, which I assume you believe (ignore this otherwise), why would the genes which produced the ability to "detect the conflict" have been selected for? Since "detecting the conflict" can cause inhibition of reproductive success.

Well, compare ants. They have evolved social behavior, which makes them evolutionarily successful in a big way; there are ants over most of the planet, and they have been around for many millions of years. That social behavior makes for reproductive success. But at the same time, there are other insect species that can mimic ant social signals and get free food and shelter out of it. Having those social signals makes the ants better off, but it also makes them vulnerability to parasitism. Their parasites make them less better off than they would be if they didn't have parasites.

The analogy is that certain ideas are parasites on the capacity of the human brain to pursue inclusive fitness. Individual self-interest is one of those ideas. But so are the pursuit of universal enlightenment and compassion, as in Buddhism (Buddha walked out on his wife and son, and did not reproduce thereafter), or dying as a martyr for your faith and going to heaven or paradise, as in Christianity and Islam.

Marxists have a useful term for this sort of thing: "relative autonomy." In Marxist thought, the state is created to serve the interests of the capitalist class; but to do so, it cannot simply carry out the wishes of any capitalist who happens to come along. It must have some discretion to make individual capitalists do things that serve their class interest and not their individual interest. And it can, in some versions of Marxism, even use that relative autonomy to serve its own interests at the expense of capitalists who are not affiliated with it. Well, whatever you think of Marxism, the human brain has relative autonomy.

And, of course, it could have happened that some parasites came along that were totally destructive of ant colonies that accepted their social signals, actually making them less inclusively fit than they would have been without social behavior. And those ant species would have died out. Or there could be ideas that totally destroyed human inclusive fitness, making the brain's relative autonomy a liability, not an asset. Heard of the Shakers, for example?

 
At 11:13 AM, November 12, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Arthur writes, about his failure to donate sperm:

"My brain is preventing my genes for getting an extraordinary deal, but I can't see why it's doing so."

I've thought about that question as well--the fact that, in equilibrium, men don't pay substantial amounts to get to donate to sperm banks is pretty strong evidence that we are not acting as our genes would want us to.

My introspective explanation is that I care about my children, and so want to be sure they are reared by parents I think suitable for the job. I probably would be willing to donate sperm for a couple I knew and strongly approved of as parents. Part of this probably comes from my identifying with my children, and not wanting to imagine being them in the wrong family. It's to some degree unreasonable, since my impression is that quite a wide range of child rearing strategies can work, and the customers of a sperm bank are going to be people who definitely want children.

From an evolutionary point of view, I think it's in the same category discussed in earlier comments. Caring about one's children has obvious advantages for reproductive success. But in this situation, which didn't exist in the environment we evolved in, it has a substantial disadvantage.

Of course, that environment did include some opportunities for adultery and casual sex. But that was, I think, driven by lust rather than directly by a desire for offspring--and that doesn't provide an incentive to donate to a sperm bank.

 
At 2:47 PM, November 12, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

Of course, that environment did include some opportunities for adultery and casual sex. But that was, I think, driven by lust rather than directly by a desire for offspring--and that doesn't provide an incentive to donate to a sperm bank.

From a Darwinian point of view, the reason that men experience lust and pursue casual sex is that it increases their inclusive fitness by begetting bastards as well as legitimate children. When human beings were evolving, acting on lust led to reproduction, so there didn't need to be a specific mechanism to impel men to pursue offspring; pursuing sex was good enough. (Unless you want to get into subtle issues like whether men can sense if women are ovulating and find them more desirable when they are.)

Now we have artificial insemination. But the original proximate reward for being lustful doesn't motivate men to donate sperm, because ejaculating into an inanimate receptable isn't very rewarding.

On the other hand, men who donate ARE having a lot more offspring. So presumably there is some sort of Darwinian process going on now that is increasing the frequency of genes that make men want to donate sperm, assuming there are such genes in the first place. (Note that these would not be "genes for donating sperm"; they would be "genes for X" that happened to have donating sperm as a byproduct.) Over the usual evolutionary time scale, donating sperm will become more common behaviorally. Assuming, that is, that the technology of reproduction is unchanged for a few tens of thousands of years, which is a big assumption.

 
At 4:32 PM, November 12, 2007, Anonymous RKN said...

Now we have artificial insemination. But the original proximate reward for being lustful doesn't motivate men to donate sperm, because ejaculating into an inanimate receptable isn't very rewarding.

An evidently lucrative market for a variety of increasingly realistic mail-order "receptacles" belies that claim.

I've thought about that question as well--the fact that, in equilibrium, men don't pay substantial amounts to get to donate to sperm banks is pretty strong evidence that we are not acting as our genes would want us to.

FWIW, I emphatically agree. It is also an observation that weakens the gene-centric theory of natural selection, at least with regard to human beings.

From an evolutionary point of view, I think it's in the same category discussed in earlier comments. Caring about one's children has obvious advantages for reproductive success. But in this situation, which didn't exist in the environment we evolved in, it has a substantial disadvantage.

Agreed that caring for one's offspring increases reproductive success, but countless evolutionarily successful species have been/are promiscuous.

In terms of increasing the chances of raising one's inclusive fitness, donating sperm would be expectedly no different than the behavior of the brood parasites, like the Cuckoo.

If the gene-centric theory of selection were true w.r.t. humans, we would expect substantially more donations to sperm banks, and arguably a variety of other promiscuous behaviors as well.

When human beings were evolving, acting on lust led to reproduction,

Were evolving? Have we stopped? ;-)

In any case, tho I expect some reproduction was the result of thoughtless lust (just as it is today), how do you know how much was not the result of love? When did the genes for love evolve?

 
At 11:24 PM, November 12, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

In any case, tho I expect some reproduction was the result of thoughtless lust (just as it is today), how do you know how much was not the result of love? When did the genes for love evolve?

What on earth does that have to do with it? The proposition If X, then Y neither implies nor is implied by the proposition If not-X, then not-Y. The claim that lust leads to reproduction is not the same as the claim that only lust leads to reproduction.

As to "when human beings were evolving," that was shorthand for "when Homo sapiens was coming into being as a species and acquiring its distinctive traits." Of course we have not stopped evolving; indeed, my later comments about the conceptual possibility that men many generations from now will be motivated to donate sperm was based on the assumption that differential reproduction was still operating in our species.

 
At 5:06 AM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous RKN said...

What on earth does that have to do with it? The proposition If X, then Y neither implies nor is implied by the proposition If not-X, then not-Y. The claim that lust leads to reproduction is not the same as the claim that only lust leads to reproduction.

Correct, tho you had qualified "lust leads to reproduction" with "When human beings were evolving", as if to make a distinction between then and now. But of course even in modernity lust often leads to reproduction. So without a meaningful distinction between then and now, it didn't seem to me that you had a point to make.

 
At 8:06 AM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

Correct, tho you had qualified "lust leads to reproduction" with "When human beings were evolving", as if to make a distinction between then and now. But of course even in modernity lust often leads to reproduction. So without a meaningful distinction between then and now, it didn't seem to me that you had a point to make.

There is a significant difference, though. A person in the 21st century developed world who wants to act on sexual desire, but does not want to beget, bear, or raise a child, has access to technological fixes. So the sex drive by itself is not sufficient to lead to reproduction. The participants have to choose reproduction, whether actively, by deliberately setting aside the usual precautions, or passively, by finding them too much bother. To increase reproduction, you would need, not a gene for increased sex drive, but a gene for actual desire for children, or one for low tolerance of the kind of prudential behavior that avoids unwanted children.

 
At 2:08 PM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

latex allergy will be the endemic illness of the next century

 
At 5:00 PM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous sportember said...

May I ask who is your open source fellow?

Regards

Curious open source player :-)

 
At 7:26 PM, November 13, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Concerning my Open Source friend ...

As Russell correctly conjectured, it's Eric Raymond.

 
At 10:40 PM, November 13, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

As Russell correctly conjectured, it's Eric Raymond.

I think well of Eric Raymond. After one of his essays was reprinted in Prometheus (the Libertarian Futurist Society's quarterly newsletter), I wrote in to disagree with one point he had made. He accepted my point, but that's not specifically what favorably impressed me, because that could just be bias on my part. But he accepted the disagreement graciously, and in fact wrote about the matter in an online essay, citing me as the source of the idea, and went on to develop some of its further implications that I had not thought of. Now that's intellectual integrity, not to mention a fine sense of courtesy. I hope that I can conduct myself as well when occasion arises.

 
At 6:12 PM, November 14, 2007, Anonymous Anon21 said...

Now that's intellectual integrity, not to mention a fine sense of courtesy. I hope that I can conduct myself as well when occasion arises.

You'll forgive me for doubting that if social democrats and communists ever convince you capitalism is a crock that you'll being working out the implications publicly and openly. But then again I suppose the same holds for Noam Chomsky and others on the left.

 
At 8:32 AM, November 15, 2007, Anonymous William H. Stoddard said...

You'll forgive me for doubting that if social democrats and communists ever convince you capitalism is a crock that you'll being working out the implications publicly and openly. But then again I suppose the same holds for Noam Chomsky and others on the left.

Well, given that expressing the hope that I will conduct myself as well clearly implies that I consider the matter open to doubt, now doesn't it? On the other hand, I don't think it's a desirable course of action just to assume that I can't possibly conduct myself that well and not make the attempt. So if your comment is intended to express contempt for my intellectual integrity, I cannot think that it would be good for me to share that contempt and aspire to nothing better. Fortunately, I have no reason to suppose that you have a sufficient evidential basis for your conclusion.

 
At 1:55 PM, November 15, 2007, Anonymous Anon21 said...

Fortunately, I have no reason to suppose that you have a sufficient evidential basis for your conclusion.

I always love this kind of response. They should put it in more action and terminator movies. I guess it would go something like this:

Terminator: You must stop trying to take over the world and become an honest, upright robot!

Evil Robot: I have no reason to believe that is the case! (blasts the Terminator)

 
At 5:21 PM, November 15, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anon21 writes:

"You'll forgive me for doubting that if social democrats and communists ever convince you capitalism is a crock that you'll being working out the implications publicly and openly."

I can't speak for William, but you might want to look a the chapter in my Machinery of Freedom entitled "National Defense: The Hard Problem." It explains why the anarcho-capitalist society I am arguing for might be unable to defend itself.

 
At 11:08 PM, November 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that being mediocre at national defense might be a feature rather than a bug in today's world... look at what the United States has done recently in the name of "national defense", and consider whether it has made us any safer or less afraid. I think that our national defense systems are having something of an autoimmune reaction, where the systems meant to make us safer only place us in further peril while draining enormous amounts of resources which could have been used for diplomacy, development and any number of other more positive things.

Of course, you may have brought this up in your book already, I guess I'll have to go pick up a copy and find out ^_^

 
At 11:19 PM, November 17, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous writes:

"Of course, you may have brought this up in your book already, I guess I'll have to go pick up a copy and find out ^_^"

The relevant book would be my first, _The Machinery of Freedom_. The second edition has a discussion of foreign policy and the downside of interventionism.

 
At 4:07 PM, December 22, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Given enough time, one would expect the genes to come up with a phenotype that is both intelligent and strongly philoprogenitive--but our minds adapt to new circumstances much faster than our genes do, so they haven't done it yet.

Fast changes in the genotype happen if some part of the genes dies out because of a new environment, but some small part of the genotyp already has the properties for survival in the new situation.

The process of dying out will look like what we see today - low birth rates, end of the exponential growth of population.

Are there philoprogenitive genes in the human population today? If yes, what are these genes? One possible answer: pedophile genes. In the current hostile environment, the safest way to get access to children for a pedophile is to have own children.

May be the modern hysteria about this question, which was not very interesting a few decades before, is a consequence of an increasing number of pedophile genes in the population, especially among parents?

 

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