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Comments by Helga Vieirch

Go to: Infanticide in higher mammals

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 71 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 70 by VrijVlinder

Yes, and it also appears that primates, and especially humans, are especially sensitive -vulnerable- to the adverse effects of stress involved in being part of a group where there is a lot of stress and instability. See this very interesting recent paper.

Sun, 15 Jul 2012 02:21:09 UTC | #949223

Go to: Infanticide in higher mammals

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 69 by Helga Vieirch

Regarding the widespread occurrence of infanticide in humans, I have one piece of data to contribute: it was NOT common in the forager group I lived with. There were cases of twins, and I specifically asked if one twin was sometimes killed or abandoned - the Kua looked at me as though I had suddenly sprouted two heads! NO, was their horrified answer. I found out about "birth control" among them - which involved mostly very long continuous breastfeeding accompanied by very slow (and infant-led) weaning. I found out the hormonal mechanism that makes this actually effective (anyone here interested?)

There were Kua forager adults who had birth injuries or other disabilities dating from childhood. Most of these had been looked after very well by their families (and everyone else they lived with) and many, including the man whose legs were paralyzed from birth, were married and had children.

Lethal solutions to humans born with no chance of survival were sometimes employed, but horrific birth defects of this kind are difficult to document. Most experienced mothers go off in to the bush by themselves to give birth. They may take another women along, or go alone. In any case, if the woman returns without an infant, very little is said about it. It only happened once while I was in the field and the woman shook her head and cried. It was born dead, she said. Then she said it had its heart outside of its body and cried in my tent for about an hour.

There are, by the way, archaeological cases recorded where skeletal evidence of extremely disabled persons surviving into adulthood. I would suggest that the very reaction of most of the people on this forum suggests that the human brain did not evolve to take infanticide and murder for granted, but rather to adopt a more empathetic and nurturing approach. The forager data, both ethnographic and archaeological, offers some support for this.

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 17:04:52 UTC | #949198

Go to: Catholic church moving to annul a marriage (between non-Catholics)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Helga Vieirch

Has anyone thought to do a psychiatric evaluation on the Pope recently?

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 16:14:24 UTC | #949192

Go to: A Matter of Faith

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 4 by Helga Vieirch

Canada has been swept by the same "born again" evangelism that has infected the United States. This has been especially true in Alberta. It is sickening when the Prime Minister appoints, as his minister for "Science and Technology" a man, who, when asked for his views on evolution, replies "I don't discuss my religion"!!!!

Sometimes I feel we are dealing with the BORG, and "resistance is futile". Most of the time, however, it seems best to keep fighting.

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 16:11:30 UTC | #949190

Go to: Living in a very religious country

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 27 by Helga Vieirch

Daisy I just found this short video on the role of the Catholic church in influencing politics. You might find it interesting.

Sat, 14 Jul 2012 16:05:39 UTC | #949189

Go to: How Humans Became Moral Beings

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 21 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 20 by jcasaes

I never understand when people argue that since kin selection cannot explain altruism in general then we have to resort to group selection as if those were the only two alternatives. Kin selection was never intended to explain altruism beyond kinship groups. Group selection doesn't make sense. What you need (and what is hardly ever mentioned in discussions of altruism) is reciprocal altruism. Not only does reciprocal altruism account for altruism beyond kinship groups, but it is also the basis for an evolutionary understanding of morality.

Reciprocal altruism is discussed by anthropologists all the time. It is found in virtually all human societies with a functional subsistence economy, and seems to persist even in very complex societies based on industrialized systems. This would suggest that it is indeed a universal human behavioural algorithm, so morality appears to be an evolved part of "human nature".

Among mobile hunter-gatherers networks of gift exchange activate into resource sharing when needed. This food sharing usually involves human mobility - the camp groups where food is locally abundant swell in numbers while those in areas of drought (or other forms of induced scarcity) dwindle to nothing. This is why most mobile hunter-gatherers are NOT territorial, but rather have land use patterns characterized by reciprocal access to land and its resources.

Comment 14 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee

However, I still find it hard to grasp what is meant by this other statement:

First of all, there could be little doubt that humans had a conscience 45,000 years ago, which is the conservative date that all archaeologists agree on for our having become culturally modern.

Again, if humans were already living as far apart as South Africa, Europe and Australia, in very different environments and with very tenuous (if any) link between many tribes, what could it mean to say we became culturally modern around this period?

This part of the article which is based on outdated information. More recent data has cast this dating for the emergence of cultural modernity back to at least 120,000 years ago. The data is from sites in southern Africa. I suspect it will eventually be pushed back even further. I am frankly puzzled that the author of the article overlooked this. However it is not the only thing overlooked in this essay, as pointed out in Comment 15 by esuther:

I have to agree with Sciencemd68. The author overlooks the existence of altruism in many species, some extremely far from us on the evolutionary tree.

I noticed that in this same comment, esuther goes on to say:

Another element I'd like to throw in is the interaction between males and females as well as females and females. When the females are smaller than the males, which is usually the case, and particularly when they are pregnant or tending infants, they require constant altruism from other tribal members, not only from the fathers of their offspring. I see a place here for the imperative of altruism to spread into other areas of tribal behavior to ensure group success.That is, altruism between the females in caring for other females' infants, can evolve toward altruism from non-fathers toward females and infants in general to insure the robustness of the tribe. In short, altruism does not necessarily arise solely out of male competition/cooperation.

Economic and sexual partnerships between men and women are characteristic of all known forager peoples. Pregnant and lactating women with infants do not however require "constant altruism", they are not often so incapacitated (except for a few days immediately after giving birth) that they cannot gather wild plants on a two hour walk.

It should be noted that in virtually every temperate and tropical forager culture, it is the females who collect and prepare most of the food: among Kalahari foragers, women contribute 75-80 % of the calories in the diet.

Family groups sharing the same camp may not all consist of closely related persons, and camp membership is fluid, as families may pack up and go to live in another camp as they see fit at any time, and camp membership also tends to change with every major camp relocation (very few weeks or months). Grandmothers and newly delivered women who remain in camp frequently look after the young children and teenagers while the adult women are foraging for plant foods and the men are out hunting.

Hunter-gatherers do not have "tribal" organization in most cases. They have bilateral kinship systems, rather than the lineages based on matrilineal or patrilineal descent seen in horticultural or pastoral economies. It is likely that these forms of descent reckoning developed only in those economies where a corporate group claimed exclusive and primary rights to fixed resources or livestock herds. In other words, there were no tribal cultures until 12,000 BC and even then, these at first would have represented a tiny fraction of humanity.

Male cooperation in hunting and the strict sharing of meat is not just kinship based, but involves men who are more distantly related and come together in one camp temporarily because their wives are sisters or close cousins, or merely close friends. In fact, friendship between people too distantly related to be able to trace any genealogical connection are widespread, and such friendship evokes altruism not explicable in terms of kin-selection.

Fri, 22 Jun 2012 13:20:43 UTC | #947961

Go to: Why smart people are stupid

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 83 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 82 by susanlatimer

The important thing is to check your work.

Now THAT is the most profound thought, so far, on the subject of this OP. And checking your work is a learned behaviour, one that lets us avoid the trap Kahneman identified. Do you recall there was an earlier discussion of his recent book about "fast' vs "slow" thinking? This OP is basically about the kind of answers people come up with using "fast" thinking. "Slow" thinking is "checking your work", in a way, isn't it? It is analytical and takes up more time, more mental energy, and more humility.

And I hope you don't misconstrue my earlier statement as fishin'. It wasn't. It's just true.

Humility is the first step in that rather elusive mental quality, that rather valuable little quiver of uncertainty, that backs up from the seemingly intuitive and quick answers, and seeks another way. The funny thing is, people often like others to be decisive; they get impatient with someone who stalls and wants to give the matter a bit of thought. So we get stampeded sometimes into thinking a fast answer is a sign of confidence and intelligence.

It is just isn't true. Confidence and intelligence are sometimes at cross purposes within the same brain.

Comment 6 by Jos Gibbons

That lilypad one is astonishing. People are that stupid? What, do they think every function in the universe satisfies f(kx) = kf(x)? And these people vote? How will they understand economics?

Albert Bartlett said it: "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." Most people have a lot of trouble understanding the consequences of steady rates of growth. I don't know if you can call it stupidity; my guess is that it is a simple failure of our education system.

I am, in my turn, astonished that you think economists might be any better at understanding this than the general public. Consider that our whole current economic system is based on the concept that we must have some degree of economic growth going on year after year. This is clearly not sustainable on a finite planet. Yet, it seems, no politician today stands any chance of being elected unless they subscribe to the notion that the political process is basically about fostering economic growth.

Sat, 16 Jun 2012 07:16:42 UTC | #947674

Go to: Sarah Outen in a typhoon

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 32 by Helga Vieirch

I thought Richard's poem was very sweet. It had the courage to be simple, poignant, and to avoid the pitfalls of "sophistication". It was the real thing.

And fitting. For a young person to undertake what Sarah is doing, illustrates that great human accomplishment is possible without the help of some invisible scorekeeper/nursemaid.

Sun, 10 Jun 2012 14:43:13 UTC | #946733

Go to: The Common Hand - By Carl Zimmer Illustration by Bryan Christie - National Geographic

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Helga Vieirch

And then there is hand-eye coordination. The forward position of the eyes, making binocular vision possible, so that the hand can reach out to grasp a branch or a piece of fruit is the same system that permits us to throw a ball and catch it, or throw a rock or a spear. Yet, it was originally selected for because it made early primates better at navigating and foraging in the trees. Fruit-eating is not as simple, even in a monkey as it might first appear, and also involves hand-eye coordination. Notice that the hands are not quite used in the same way as a human hand could be used.

Much of what our hands were evolved to do was handle food, and most of the food our distant ancestors ate would have been fruit from trees. There is some evidence that they might have been seed-swallowers, like modern chimps, rather than seed spitters or seed-pickers like some species of monkeys. This has some interesting consequences for the role that apes and early hominids might have played in dispersal of valuable species of fruit trees.

Early human foragers in more open country do not just eat raw fruits and other vegetation: it is gathered and brought to a camp for processing, often by being dismembered and cooked. In the case of tubers and corms, those which are not cooked ate often dug back in to the soil for storage. Many are forgotten and left behind when the people decamp. The people leave behind a new little colony of these food plants, so, again, they aid in the dispersal of food plants useful to them.

Our hands are intimately involved in every activity towards preparing a meal: the procurement, which may involve picking, digging, and even climbing a tree to shake fruit down. It is hands that tie the skin sac together in such a way that it can hold all the gathered food and be carried back to camp, hands that sort through the resulting pile and select the ingredients for the evening meal, pull of any decayed plant material before cooking, hands that bring the firewood to the camp, and hands that manage the fire, rake back the sand and coals, and create the hot fire-pit in which the nuts, beans, and vegetables will be roasted.

Our hands are the hands of a hunter and a gatherer. That they can also hold a pen and write, become involved in tender caresses in parenting and love-making, and do so many other things is due to the tremendous diversity of activities that even the simplest human technologies demand. Hands, and the coordination between hands and eyes, probably shaped our brains!

Fri, 08 Jun 2012 07:16:19 UTC | #946279

Go to: Sins of Memory

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 8 by Helga Vieirch

Fri, 08 Jun 2012 06:27:08 UTC | #946276

Go to: Living in a very religious country

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 9 by Helga Vieirch

I have great sympathy with you. I have relatives in the Philippines, including a young second cousin who is at university there. I have the impression that the students, in discussion amongst themselves, are indeed often more liberal in their views.

Remember too that it was not so long ago that countries, which are now much more liberal in their public culture, were virtual theocracies. You are far from alone. There are quite possibly many other people who are just going along with the majority but whose private views are not unlike yours.

But the main issue you raise is ultimately political. Do people who demonstrate for women's rights get arrested in the Philippines? If not, attend demonstrations. This would of course make your private views public, which might put you in a bad position in some way or cause family trouble. But don't you think that speaking out against things that are unjust or even simply irrational is the only way to find out if change is possible?

Fri, 08 Jun 2012 06:19:38 UTC | #946275

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 184 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 177 by Jos Gibbons

Well, naturally in-breeding needs to be prevented. Plenty of species exhibit this live in one group, then leave it to breed in another behaviour: primates, eusocial insects, you name it.

I guess the question is really "what is the group?". Among hunter=gatherers, what you see when you go out to the field, is these little clusters of huts in the middle of the wilderness, which contain about 25 people. You can go around and find clusters of these little encampments, and find that there are five to ten of them in an area of, say 250 square miles. If you go back six weeks later, the locations might almost all be deserted, because all the camps have been moved to another location five or ten miles away. Not only that, but the people who are camped out together has often changed, sometimes only one family from the original camp is left from the group you censused the first time in the original camp in each case. This local clustering of camps is what I have called "the camp cluster. And this is what seems closest to the "group" that approximate the one corresponding to Dunbar's number.

However, it is not an exact correspondence. You see, some of the people from the original cluster of camps always seem to wind up after a camp move, go OUTSIDE the original cluster. Meanwhile, persons originally censused in the next cluster of camps (up to twenty miles away) are now to be found camping within the original cluster you started with.

In fact , each family may be found, over the course of a year, camping with people from all the clusters within the whole language grouping. So is the language grouping the "group"?

What do you think?

Let’s not get confused by what we’re seeing here into thinking group selection is at work. The definition Wikipedia provides contradicts the stuff I’ve cut out above about not caring about getting rewarded later:

Generalized reciprocity is the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their value will balance out over time.

Yes, exactly so. that is why it is called "generalized". However, at this point, I am not sure what group we might be best to focus on, if in fact we were to try to test any hypotheses regarding group selection. I do not see how it can possibly be the camp group - that is too fluid and ephemeral. I feel the same way, actually, about the camping cluster, although this seems to correspond best with Dunbar's Number. Again, I'd like your opinion on this.

You probably remember the discussion in TSG of experiments in which it was seen how well different strategies perform in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma; it turned out Tit for Tat kept winning. Of course, the real world in which humans exhibit reciprocity to one another isn’t one in which each occasion on which prisoner’s-dilemma choice need to be iteratively made has the same payoff matrix. It’d be interesting to see what the best strategy is in a realistic model. Since Tit for Tat says, “co-operate with an individual the first time you have to choose whether to co-operate or defect with them, but subsequently treat an individual the way s/he treated you last time”, it’s already an “I’ll have to wait & see whether this kindness pays off” strategy – and, possibly on some occasions, an “I’ll have to wait & see whether this lack of kindness pays off” strategy. So even when the payoff matrix is a constant the strategy only “keeps track of” the most recent interaction with a person; it’s as if I keep mind of whether most recently you lent me money or vice versa, but not of every single past transaction and hence which of us owes money to the other and how much. In the general case, presumably the strategy that happens to get close-to-correctly-accounted reciprocal behaviour is again one that doesn’t have the level of detail of a bank statement. In other words, it would be what Wikipedia defines as generalized reciprocity.

To repeat a comment of yours, while it may be true that

Everyone benefits when they know they can turn to anyone else when in need of help, instead of hunting up only those to whom they might have done a favour in the past

we need an individual’s genes to benefit from him/her going along with such altruism if this behaviour is to stably evolve; it won’t be selected because it’s for the good of the group (which is what group selection would do), although it may happen to be good for the group.

Could it not be both? Could, say, the camp cluster, not benefit by having generalized reciprocity both within them and between them? Would this not be interesting, if this kind of economic system, which is after all the original human way of life, might be one in which there is positive feedback favouring altruism which is not just culturally reinforced by the punishment of those who are selfish, but also by selection of genes that make people feel good when they are generous?

Mon, 04 Jun 2012 04:09:49 UTC | #945393

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 174 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 167 by Jos Gibbons

But a conscious desire to obey Hamilton’s rule cannot in general be expected to emerge. We don’t have a conscious desire to fulfil our Darwinian “obligations”. In any case, we’ve only just discovered all the details. Even biologists didn’t know how to calculate r correctly until surprisingly recently, because almost all subscribed to one school or another claiming all heredity is from one parent (the schools differing in which one it was). If they didn’t have the right knowledge to obey Hamilton’s rule consciously,

Jos, I think you may have misunderstood me. I only meant that, unlike other animals, humans do actually tend to keep track of their blood kinship relationships. So if they wanted to act on the basis of blood ties, they can, and in fact they actually do. People have put in place things like rules of inheritance of property and titles which are explicit in preference for blood relations. They do not need to calculate on the basis of Hamilton's rule, they have been operating in some ways that are in accordance to it for millennia.

specific rights and obligations are mandated towards others outside the cognitively known and consciously expressed kinship circle.

That’s because until recently we lived in communities of 150 where everyone you ever met was quite closely related to you. It gives us an unconscious basis for wide altruism.

That is also true, up to a point. but what I was so struck by was the fact that they also extend networks of sharing well beyond their immediate blood kin, to include in-laws, in sharing out meat, for example. It is interesting that you bring up Dunbar's Number here, with reference to group size. What I actually found, though was that the first tier of relationships (closest relations and closest friends) hovers around that magical 150-180 persons, this only represents the local cluster of camp groups that most frequently interact with a particular person. For each person, however the set of people that make up this first tier was always a bit different. This is because this group is really too small to supply mates from within the group. In fact, most marriages occurred between these clusters rather than within them.

It follows from this that everyone has in-laws in at least one other camp cluster. If there are are three brothers, it is quite likely that they will marry women from three different clusters. It follows, also, of course, that the children of these brothers will themselves be close relatives of people in at least two clusters comprising around 150 persons, and although these clusters will overlap, they will not be identical. Over time, this means that the whole population, of nearly 2000 persons, and comprising a local language group, will have relations, (some closer and some more distant kinship,) with everyone else.

Now camping groups are the most frequent local co-residential groupings. These camps consist of three to five families, as well as a few bachelors, widowed grannies, and others who will set up their own hut and hearth area within the camp group of huts and hearths belonged to these 3 to 5 families. The numbers in a camp group range from 15 to 45, averaging around 28 people (including children). Camping groups are however not permanent in their make-up. couples and individuals might decide to go camp out with other relatives and friends when the camp is moved , as happens every few weeks to every two months depending on the season and local food supply. What I have described here is based on my fieldwork notes among the Kua; similar camping groups exist, for example, among the Hadza.

People may also depart at any time, to go visit parents or siblings or friends who are camping out at another site. If there is a strong disagreement within the camp group, one of the parties may well just decamp overnight, and go and stay with other people. Young unmarried people may drift from camp to camp in seasons when the camps are located in closer proximity, to attend dances and meet other young people amongst whom some will be more distantly related and could therefore be courted in the hopes of establishing a formal economic and emotional partnership.

So you see, among foragers, at least, the fluid residential arrangements permit people a much wider set of social contacts than just their first tier of closest relatives and friends. There is a whole second tier, comprising the other camp clusters who are immediate neighbours living in the next river valley, as well as a third tier of people who see less of one another. Among the Kua it often considered desirable to find a mate in the second or even third tier of acquaintance. Indeed, these kinship ties through intermarriage also cross language boundaries, and the Kua had relatives through generations of intermarriage with the !Xo the //ana, and the g/wi speaking Bushman groups living at different point so the compass around the Kua's central range.

Also, don’t forget reciprocal altruism.

I have not forgotten this, indeed, at least among foragers, what you see is a form of reciprocal altruism that is extended in such a way that it has been called generalized reciprocity by ethnographers. This means that the sharing and gift giving is not done to incur a kind of obligation on the part of the receiver. Instead of expecting this treatment to establish mutual reciprocity between two parties in a kind of exchange of material goods and aid, it is more open-ended. The idea is, I am nice to you not because I expect you to return the favour sometimes, but rather to pass it on , as in that film "pay it forward". Everyone benefits when they know they can turn to anyone else when in need of help, instead of hunting up only those to whom they might have done a favour in the past. The Kua I lived with were not unusual in this, a recent study that looked specifically at social networks among Hadza foragers in East Africa found the same thing.

But some ideas begin life in maths those are the ideas people like me have to try to translate for maths-haters.

I had to smile, for somehow your words conjured up the image of a brand new formula, lying demurely diapered in a cradle, with you standing tender guard over it… from those who dislike mathematics. Well, your baby formulas have nothing to fear from me. I know what innocent and beautiful little darlings newly hatched formula are.

Personally, I resent the requirement for it. For example, frankly I think that quantum mechanics makes perfect sense, but a sense that’s only communicable in maths; people’s attempts to “translate” it into English, which involve square pegs in round holes, lead to some phrasings which not only get the details wrong, but which sound downright bizarre to laypeople (including journalists), which is why QM has the reputation it does among them. Finally, even if an idea sounds like it works in words, the maths is needed to check we’re not being misled; it’s easy to be misled, for example, by not spotting that some inequality you’d need to be satisfied actually isn’t.

I always thought that Stephen Hawking did a rather good job. And do not forget. Einstein's equations still had to be subjected to test by the empirical evidence from actual behaviour of light bending as it encountered objects of great celestial mass. So it is, or rather, I would consider it to be, a feedback loop that is vital. If a formula is to be useful, it must be able to predict the behaviour of the real material universe.

Sun, 03 Jun 2012 03:59:15 UTC | #945250

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 166 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 157 by Richard Dawkins

The modern consensus among evolutionary biologists is that organisms work to maximise their inclusive fitness, as explained by the late W D Hamilton. If you actually read the modern literature on evolutionary biology, you will find that Hamilton's theoretical framework is overwhelmingly what guides field workers in ecology, ethology, behavioural ecology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology . . . I can't see what else 'consensus' might mean. One thing is for sure, D S Wilson, to whom Helga Vierich bizarrely refers us, does not represent a consensus of anybody but himself.


I did not mean to refer to anyone in a bizarre way. I do feel that the linked article reflected an interesting position, since it is always refreshing to find anyone claiming consensus in the middle of a raging debate. D.S. Wilson seems to see Richard Dawkins at one end of a continuum of opinion and E.O. Wilson at the other. I was wondering if his claims of middle ground were too optimistic? Evidently, they were.

Hamilton is one of the people that I have revered as long as I can remember, for he was one of the few biologists who focussed early and hard on the kinds of questions that I felt OUGHT to be asked within my own field of anthropology. I remember reading some years ago, some poignant remarks of his concerning his struggles to frame models of genetic selection featuring possible genes for altruism, where he mentions that he had looked to the anthropological literature and this "led nowhere". This illustrates, I'm afraid, why so many people in evolutionary biology turn to other sources of data when looking particularly at human behavioural evolution. It made me sad to realize that many ethnographers and physical anthropologists have simply not been collaborating enough with their colleagues in biology. Let us try to do better.

When I first read Hamilton's formulation for genes influencing social cooperation (I think he may have actually stated it as applying to social "action" so it might also apply to things other than just altruistic behaviour) for the result to be greater than nothing (which I understood as the cost of NOT doing something for someone else), in other words the conferred benefit (b) times the coefficient of relationship of interaction, minus the cost of the action, seemed to me to be utterly brilliantly simple and obvious. I am embarrassed to say that I did not read this paper until twenty years after its publication, when I had come back from Africa the first time.

I still remember it, the way some people recall what they were doing the moment they heard of the assassination of Kennedy, or saw the twin towers fall in New York. I was on my home from my job at the National Archives in Ottawa, in a Tim Horton's, having coffee and some sort of maple walnut strudel. I don't clearly remember anything else from that day, let alone that month, because I was sort of lost in the fog of implications. It was during the time I was working on my dissertation, and as many o fyou know, one is, often, in a fog anyway at that time. I did test it using my own field notes on the Kua. I used the data on meat distribution, for which I had some suitable data.

It fit.

Oddly enough, however, it worked almost equally well for all the in-laws as for consanguineous relations in the sample. It did not quite explain the relatively high levels of sharing with more distant kin who were camping together with a families of first and second tier kin.

In other words, it did not quite explain why sharing would extend to people considered "friends" rather than relations, but if I introduced the name-share kin (a kind of fictive kinship designated due to name-sharing) as a proxy for real kinship distance, then it did fit. My kinship chapter became so unwieldy that my supervisor, Richard Lee, in the end decided it would best be completely dropped from my doctoral thesis. I showed this to a number of colleagues in later years but no one seemed very interested, so I was rather flattened and decided it was perhaps not worth trying to get it published. I almost wish the internet had existed at the time, and I then would have had someone to ask about the theoretical implication of using "proxy kinship" in the equation. Shortly after that, I was hired by ICRISAT and went to West Africa to do applied anthropology. Subsequently I read further (Dawkins, 1979, 12 myths) and was suddenly struck by another revelation, which I will get to in a moment, and which makes me glad that i waited.

Now Polly Wiessner DID do the calculations on her data on the !Kung in her thesis, I believe, and she also did extensive research on Hxaro gifting networks, as these seemed to operate to extend potential sharing during times of need. See also this interesting presentation of further work undertaken. Polly's work on this, and that of others who followed up these investigations, seemed to me to show how incredibly far-reaching were the effects of social networks, even those going well beyond known kinship, that I have begun to think that in human behaviour at least, something beyond kinship calculations needed to be considered.

I have often mentioned generalized reciprocity among foragers in discussions on this forum, a term which, in anthropology, means, in a way, that foragers tend to extend food sharing and other assistance well beyond the kinship network. Furthermore, they do this in an open-ended way, not in terms of expecting anything equivalent in return, as in "trade" but in the sense of "pass it onward". The !Kung Hxaro gifting net might traffic in items like jewellery, musical instruments, metal for making arrowheads, or other small items, however, these ultimately symbolize the willingness to offer significantly more assistance of critically important economic weight, should need arise at any point along the network.

What this indicates to me is that in human behaviour, there are aspects of altruism that go beyond Hamilton's formula. And, Richard, I found that you yourself, in your 1979 paper, 12 Misunderstandings of kin selection indicated one of the ways to get beyond this problem:

Animals cannot, of course, be expected to know, in a cognitive sense, who their relatives are, and in practice the behaviour that is favoured by natural selection will be equivalent to a rough rule of thumb such as ‘share food with anything that moves in the nest in which you are sitting.’ If families happen to go around in groups, this fact provides a useful rule of thumb for kin selection: ‘care for any individual you often see’.” (Dawkins 1979, 187)

Maynard Smith had said something very similar a few years before that, if I remember correctly, pointing out that animals would behave altruistically to members of their social group, whether nor not these were in fact genetically related. For kin selection (inclusive fitness) to be at work, it does not matter: it, (br>c), is an ultimate explanation, not a proximate cause, for the social behaviours that are expressed. So, theoretically, it does not even matter if animals can be fooled into treating the members of their social group as if these were close relatives when they are not (as when I foster baby rabbits from one doe's nest into the nest of a doe from a completely different breed) - this does not invalidate inclusive fitness theory.

Correct me if I have misunderstood any of this, please.

However, the problem with humans is that they DO have cognitive systems in place for just such a calculation. Humans, at least in forager, horticultural, and pastoral economies, keep detailed genealogical charts in their heads, and have specific terminology for various degrees of relationship. The genealogical depth goes backwards through both parental lines. Moreover, it goes further, for although a men may treat his mother-in-law differently from his own mother, the relationship is considered extremely important and on the same level of proximity, in terms of expectations of sharing food and offering other aid and assistance. Humans, in formally recognizing the economic partnership between a man and woman, do tend to see this as the formalization of an alliance of kinship between two families, or even two lineages, or, in more complex societies, between whole dynasties of clanship (as in royal marriages uniting children of two kingdoms).

And yet, the specific rights and altruistic obligations that appear to represent evolved social behaviour among kin, in humans, are often also mandated towards others outside the cognitively known and consciously expressed kinship circle. This finds specific expression in sayings, like "all men are brothers", which go further than the statement "Love thy neighbour" which is the functional equivalent of ‘care for any individual you often see’, (proximity=probable kin). Another example is fictive kin: sharing a name with someone has implications among the Kua, for instance, that automatically slot the outsider into a whole kinship structure. I was given a Kua name, for example, that awarded me, in one fell swoop, with a father and mother, a host of brothers and sisters, and in fact, more and more sudden relatives than I ever expect to have again in this life. I had to learn very quickly what my correct behaviour and obligations were to be. And it was a learning curve fraught with anxiety and some pretty big faux-pas on my own part.

So humans, among all creatures, are perhaps able to exemplify kin selection most consciously, and yet they also, but also consciously, and often deliberately are capable of extending the altruistic balm far and wide, cultivating fictive and foster kin relationships willy nilly in all directions. I suppose this could mean that even animals that CAN distinguish their blood relationship, tend still to ACT, on the formula of altruistic behaviour, genetically encoded, put in place by millions of years of selection for inclusive fitness.

But then, why do we have breaks in this? Why are there endogamous cultures and subcultures? Why are there hostile cultures? Has this always been the case?

Obviously, based on my own interpretation of the ethnographic and archaeological record, I think that endogamy and mutual hostilities were rare in the world of foragers among other foragers. I have said so. too often, probably, in these discussions. Most of you probably wish I'd just invent an acronym for this: like NWEEFA for No War in Evolutionary Environment of Forager Adaptation ?

But I think it is not so simple. I'd explain why and why I suspect there WERE sometimes murderous hostilities even among foragers, and exactly why these were low frequency, only I fear I've already gone way beyond the patience of anyone who has been patient enough to bear with me throughout the foregoing. Just a word to Jos:

Comment 162 by Jos Gibbons

I'm not even sure why I posted this reply

I share your frustration, All About Meme. Somehow, though, we're both incomprehensibly replying. Well, here I go!

Oh Jos, you have a droll sense of humour! I had to smile, imagining you perhaps rolling your eyes and stretching your fingers before beginning to type.

At the very least, only by means of ideas not already undermined by the maths. Look: what has hijacked this thread if several people saying they simply know this mathematical case is untrustworthy, using only words - which are like maths, only vaguer - to make their own case. Do you really think any of the "maths isn't perfect" points you've made are any less applicable to the maths-free reasoning we've seen here? Quite the reverse.

I see what you mean. Only I did not mean what you thought I meant. I don't mind math or formula, it is just that words should also serve, if the truth is real. Math can make it more communicable to others sometimes, but I also think that if some thing is too tenuous to be put into words clearly enough to state cause and effect relationships, then putting it into a formula won't actually help. You know this: you have yourself often put into words complex ideas, in a way that I have seen very few people able to do. It makes you posts here rather nice. I also like Arthur Noll's posts, as those of Zeuglodon, and in fact , most people who post here. If you people don't want me to stick around, stop being so thoughtful and stimulating! (and by the way, I have some thoughts on your comment 158, Zeuglodon, but I have run out of time and the toothpicks holding my eyes open have both snapped, so there will be a delay…)

Sat, 02 Jun 2012 05:37:44 UTC | #945150

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 155 by Helga Vieirch

This is becoming ridiculous. I find it very unpleasant to have this entire discussion hijacked by the idea that evolutionary processes can only be understand by means of mathematical equations. Mathematical equations are only models of relationships, and they can only "simulate". It is doubtful if they can even do this adequately, EVER, because they are always limited to the variables that their creator has a way of measuring and has even thought to include. They do not trump the scientific method. You can have lovely formula for all kinds of things, but only the scientific method (real observations of the events as they unfold in the material universe) can tell us if our formula was even close to approximating reality. In other words, math equations are not more real than reality. They are only symbolic representations, much like all other human languages.

May I make a suggestion? We might all try to have a look at what the modern consensus among evolutionary biologists actually is, with regard to group selection.

Fri, 01 Jun 2012 17:19:53 UTC | #945019

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 102 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 98 by Zeuglodon

Helga: Some are extremely old, perhaps millions of years old (reading deer tracks) some are newer (riding a bicycle).

Again, the longevity of individual cultures (assuming they don't segue along continuum or continua) is irrelevant to whether they'd be good replicators/vehicles or not.

Sorry I guess I was not clear. I was referring to the individual memes not any particular whole culture. Tracking memes are probably millions of years old.

Helga: And they are not "copying themselves" - they are variously taught and learned by human beings using aspects of their brains that may well have formed that way for the precise purpose of copying and learning these things.

A replicator, by definition, copies itself. Teaching and learning is, first and foremost, a flow of information from one brain to another, which enables one brain to change and reshape the physical structure of the other. The process that led to the modern human brain must principally have been genetic evolution, but again it's possible for a threshold between the proto-culture of chimpanzees, say, and cultures like those of humans to tip the balance towards a new neurological phenomenon. None of this in itself justifies making a whole culture a replicator unit.

Well, why not? I think it is an interesting idea, and might explain a whole lot about the reason our brains developed their high degree of creativity, flexibility ...and also those strange pockets of willful stupidity and resistance to new ideas that we all deplore.

You know, I think we might be arguing a cross purposes here, and actually may mean the same thing. A gene cannot replicate itself by itself, either. It needs to be part of a genome, as a molecular structure attached to similar molecular structures that exist within a vehicle that that not only sustains itself, is created from a physical environment that supplied the raw materials for its own "replication" under the direction of the genomic code, and then assembled enough raw materials to set in motion a replication procedure. For which procedure, most genes appear to be dependent upon yet another gene or even a set of genes that direct the unzipping, duplication of the DNA, and then the division of the cellular material to accompany each new band of replicants to their new cell.

In multicellular organisms, even a single cell cannot be a replicator independent of all the rest. The gene itself needs a sperm, and the sperm is not going to happen if were not for the testes, and the testes are totally dependent upon the rest of the male animal, if you get my drift. And for social animals, the whole issue of self-replication is literally encased in a multitude of relationships and mutually inter-dependent processes.

The mistakes, or mutations, are supposed to come after several generations of accurate copying, ideally after enough time for one mutation to fixate or vanish. It cannot be before replication begins, but cultures break this rule - they mutate and change before they've even "budded". And "budded" is a generous concession to make, as my points above in Comment 95 elucidate.

Supposed to come after several generations of accurate copying? Well, we can only guess at the penalty imposed on the poor gene and memes that dared to be different before its time.

Seriously though, what on earth gave you the impression that cultures "mutate" or bud at such a scandalous rate? Have you any idea how resistant people are to changing ideas once these have become imbedded in their minds? How implacably people cling to the most ridiculous notions and explanations even when confronted with clear scientific evidence that these ideas are simply incorrect?
People might be willing to try on a new hat, or to find ever more convenient ways of keeping in touch with each other or cooking dinner, but these are superficial compared to that third aspect of a cultural system, the ideological part, which is always the last and the hardest holdout in any normal time of cultural change.

And you have yourself identified, in your own comments throughout our discussion, exactly why this should be the case. The ideas, particularly those sets of cause-and-effect stories that get stuck into people's heads when they are young, are extremely conservative and resistant to change. They force the persistence of particular patterns of behaviour and valuation of material resources even long after these have no longer any functional benefits within a changed economic system.

It is the ideological system that rationalizes the rest of what happens within a culture, that codes for morals, for etiquette, for the systems of explanation (religious, mystical, scientific) and for all the ideal ways things "should be done" (from weddings to training puppies) that are the equivalent to DNA in cultures. You can call every bit of a cultural system a meme, and the whole tissue of culture a meme-bundle if that makes you happy. That's fine, as long as you accept the reality that not all of these bits and pieces are of equal importance or, to put it more correctly, do not have the same weight in replicating the whole thing from one generation to the next.

We happen to be living in the most rapid period of culture change, even culture-shredding, that has ever happened in human history, and it is the culmination of 300 years of constantly accelerating changes and challenges. Traditions have given way faster and faster, to the point where people hardly listen to the same music if they are even ten years apart today. Remember "Future Shock" from Alan Toffler? We are even well beyond that now. We live in a Post-Shock universe.

But do we see the vast majority of people dropping their great great grandparents ideology regarding some core stuff like who made the universe? How many people do you know who still earnestly believe that the history of humankind has represented "progress'? How frequently do you run into people who have completely dropped the idea that humankind has a perfect right to do anything they please with the rest of nature as long as it keeps the economy going? How many want o even look at any evidence that human beings are not actually quite wicked and selfish at their core?

Yet every one of these ideas was once new, explaining why people were no longer equal in this life, and why it was better to have governments and kings, a system that began after the "neolithic" revolution. ( It was called Neolithic, by the way, because it was then that grinding stones (for milling grain and sharpening axes) began to appear in the archaeological record… domestication of plants and animals, eventually followed by urbanization and the cutting down of great forests, as the first books of Gilgamesh recount.) It has been a highly successful set of memes, despite all the trouble it has caused individuals, over the past few thousand years, skipping from culture to culture and setting off waves of cultural transformation everywhere that it took hold. Such cultures have outbred and overtaken the resources of almost all foragers on the planet. Ten thousand years ago they might have represented the culture of perhaps 2% of humanity, now it is more like 99%.

What that means to me is that cultural systems are essential to organizing human groups, but have characteristics that make them subject to selection pressures different from those acting on the biological host population of any one cultural system. For over a million years the cultural system of humans was one that ran along very much in tandem with the selection pressures on the human biological organism. The cultural systems typical of most foragers share a lot of features because foraging economies impose certain limits on things like property accumulation and imposition of authority.

They put a premium on sharing and on generalized (rather than tit-for-tat) generosity, on maintaining "as large as possible" networks of friendship, goodwill, and potential mates and places of refuge. This works well in optimizing the utilization of wild resources and in overcoming natural fluctuations due to vagaries of climate, earthquakes, and volcanic events. As Arthur just pointed out:

it is more likely a small population will all be killed by common events than a larger population. Especially if the organism in question tends to cluster together, and many do, for a variety of reasons. And energy events of moderate size that can kill, do look far more common to me in the theoretical framework of this planet. For every class 5 hurricane there are hundreds of smaller storms, for example, and yet there could be enough energy in a smaller storm to kill. For every massive earthquake, tsunami, volcano, drought, severe winter etc, there are many smaller events. If you only have a few organisms left after a dieoff because of overpopulation, then it is far more likely that something like a common storm, small landslide from a minor earthquake, a slightly worse than normal winter, moderate drought, etc, would kill all of them

Keeping one's social network spread very wide also kept the heterogeneity at the Major Histocompatibility Complex from falling too low for optimum immune system function. Strategic thinking for long term access to as many places and the goodwill of as many people as possible makes sense if you are a forager living in a world of foragers. The fact that there is evidence that the human brain is very sensitive to unfair devision of goods and unjust treatment indicates, to me at least, that we underwent a long period of evolutionary time when mutations were selected for if they tended to make us feel good when we did things that optimized survival within a forager economy - and of course, these were ideas encoded within most forager cultures.

But then we stopped foraging and got into a whole new kind of relationship with our ecosystem, and our neighbours. Everything changed.

I would suggest that humans have a cognitive system that has been highly effective as a host for replicating cultural systems for at least a million years… we do not appear to be getting any worse at it either, but we might be undergoing some selection in favour of the ability to throw off old ideologies and innovate and be adventurous about trying new things. Since the Neolithic started, there was a speeding up of cultural change, or evolution. Certainly competition between cultural groups became common in a world where it was previously rare. This might even have altered the balance between conservative and rebellious or "free-thinking" personalities in the general population.

If we were to accept, just for arguments sake, that cultural systems constitute self-replicating systems that organized human groups, what would that mean in a post-neolithic world? It might mean that in places where there were competing groups, less efficient, or less strategically aggressive groups were driven to extinction. It might also mean that in other environments, with less competition, selection might have favoured optimal fit into local natural systems in a way that was sustainable, even at fairly high levels of human population density. We don't know how many cultures have gone extinct because they overshot their resources and collapsed, but we do know that of some, and we know that a portion of the biological population always survived, although they rarely had the same "culture" as the one that got their ancestors in trouble.

And here is the amazing and seemly contradictory fact about our bio-cultural connection. While our brains are very resistant to changing ideas once they are learned and seem to fit the whole pattern of our lives, we can, even as adults, suddenly switch over and throw out the lot in favour of a better set of ideas if these fit circumstances so changed that the old lot simply didn't make sense anymore.

And this is because human brains are very good at picking up all sorts of new memes and even inventing them out of nothing much at all if things get really bad. Imagine it: human brains run on a program, and that program is inevitably cultural. The fact that cultural systems can be swallowed up by history, while the former hosts of that cultural system carry on perfectly fine with a whole different set of ideas and values and customary practices in their minds, should not blind you to the reality that this fickle-heartedness is an adaptation of the human brain, which doesn't really seem to have any preference when it comes to what software is running it, as long as it works. Cultures have gone splat before, and the humans have adopted new ideas and survived. The cases where the humans have not survived have been cases where the very option of a viable economic system has been erased as part of a natural disaster or deliberate genocide.

I think it is is a very interesting thing about humans that we seem to have developed some resistance to being parasitized by a set of ideologies that are actually interfering with our physical survival. The analogy is not perfect, since human brains need that "infection" in order to function, but it appears that we do have a mechanism, when things get really bad, of off-loading the old software and rebooting with a new system, even if we have to make it up from scratch. The host, thus, has a capacity to shake off the malfunctioning operating system in favour of something that works. I actually have sometimes wondered if the human mind finds it easier to shake off cultural memes that feel "wrong" because they do not fit our cognitive system as well as the memes of egalitarianism, fairness, and justice that were part of the old EEA programming.

In other words, would our brains be happier on the forager cultural programming? I know mine was. I got back to Canada after three years with the Kua and gave five hundred dollars (all the cash I had on me) to the first beggar I saw downtown on a street corner in Ottawa. Never gave it a moment's thought and walked away happy. I had to borrow the money to go buy nice clothes for a job interview a few weeks later, but I still don't regret what I did. I was not a "Canadian" again during that first period back home. My brain was happy and very secure, and yet, according to my relatives and friends, totally "lame" when it came to things and money. I had to "change my mind" and it meant becoming insecure and much more afraid for the future. I recall thinking it through and realizing that I did not have enough money to keep putting human beings and their needs ahead of my own personal survival. It was a wrenching change.

Of course, among foragers, there is no money, There is only everything you have on hand that you can share on any given day. In a system of generalized reciprocity, everyone else will do the same for you if you are in need. (and in case you are wondering, they deal with freeloaders with extreme levels of mockery, but they don't let them starve.)

I don't know if everyone here will ever agree that cultures just might constitute groups of an evolutionary significance. I do find it immensely sad that, while we are arguing about this, several of these darned cultural replicators (my way of describing them) have been hijacked into endlessly replicating sets of ideas in support of a global economy that will ultimately plunder everyone's future. I'm not just thinking of myself here, or you, or the whole human race. I have been pondering the plight of Tigers, and Rhinos, Orang-utans, and Tuna.

While so many human brains are being terribly loyal to the promise of the enlightenment and the firm belief that science and technology can find a way to give humanity a better future, I fear our future is drying up, blowing away, becoming radioactive, going extinct, and about to run out of energy, water, and fish, ...and to become toast.

Our western industrial global "group" may be about to undergo one hell of a selection event.

Wed, 30 May 2012 00:54:38 UTC | #944345

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 96 by Helga Vieirch

No they are not all just memes, nor are they all within a single culture. Some are extremely old, perhaps millions of years old (reading deer tracks) some are newer (riding a bicycle). And they are not "copying themselves" - they are variously taught and learned by human beings using aspects of their brains that may well have formed that way for the precise purpose of copying and learning these things.

Langauges, for example.

Finally, for self-replicators, "identical" is important but mistakes are what are crucial. Without mistakes there is no variation, and without variation there is no possibility for evolution.

Tue, 29 May 2012 18:42:49 UTC | #944283

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 89 by Helga Vieirch

Cultures do not replicate themselves? Egad, that is no doubt why no one needs to learn their languages, be shown how to ride a bicycle, balance a check book, make a spear, read an animal track, identify various species of plants and animals, learn how to set the table, how to make appropriate greetings, take part in social discussions, cook foods, boil water, put on clothes, darn socks, draw pictures, write and do mathematics, or the correct way to court a woman.

It is all in the genes.

Mon, 28 May 2012 23:04:56 UTC | #944096

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 82 by Helga Vieirch

If we can move this behind the level of genes for just a moment, and focus on cultures as replicators, I hope that might clarify things a bit. I say this only because I think that is actually the target of Wilson's rumination.

There are a number of statements made here so far on culture as a replicator group system possibly subject to selection. I'll go through and reply to these, and forgive me if I miss anyone.

Kriton said

But the key for me was to consider that those other genes are part of the environment where a gene competes. This is a point often forgotten I think. We tend to think of the environment only as the world outside of the organism. But from the genes point of view, it is everything outside the gene itself.

I do think there is genuine universalism, separate from kin concern and reciprocity, in humans. This universalism is probably genetically coded, and I believe I have showed how such a gene could evolve. It required other genes to be around already and a change in how humans lived, but it was possible, and we can see the result in humans today.

I think this a good point to consider. Especially when you add that for humans, the environment of each each gene is not just the whole genome, but the physical environment at affects how that gene is expressed or not, from the moment of conception, and even before that.

But you were talking about altruism. As you may be aware, the fact that altruism is useful in leading to cooperative and coordinated behaviour between humans, even humans from different cultural groups, is in almost direct contrast to models suggesting that humans have strong in-group vs out-group sentiments, leading to internal loyalty and hostility if not actual aggression directed against outsiders.

That is perhaps a topic for another day. However, the fact is that genes supporting cooperation and mutual support beyond the immediate kin group do appear to have been selected for in humans, and for a very very long time. I have suggested that this is a result of intense selective pressures favouring groups that had high levels of internal, generalized reciprocity (sharing without tit-for-tat accounting) both in food distribution and in other kinds of aid, including the sharing of territories. Others have suggested the same.

Comment 71 by Zeuglodon

In a hypothetical sense, I have nothing against the possibility of some replicator system involved in "culture", though I maintain that such a thing, if it existed, would by definition be called a meme. In this sense, there is no need for it to be biologically based. The two can be treated independently.

However, any replicator has to work with the material presented to it. In the case of culture, the genetic products of evolution set up the complex neurological bases upon which a cultural system would work. Culture is, first and foremost, a consequence of brain activity when considered over several interacting individuals. At present, it would be heavily constrained by the requirements of natural selection…

I am not sure whether we are in fact are talking about the same thing when we speak of culture as s replicator subject to natural selection. Cultures are not just a bunch of memes thrown together in a sort of patchwork quilt… cultures are highly integrated systems of human behaviour and thought. They consist of three main aspects, given in term of their weight in terms of pushing other parts of the system to change over time. The heavy is called resource extraction and all the technology (from sharpened sticks to offshore oil drilling platforms) that go with it, along with all the skills and co-ordinated behaviour of human groups engaged in the activity. The getting of resources, their transport and processing and eventual consumption and discarding of waste, all together constitute the material economy that supplies food, medicine, shelter, clothing, toys, musical instruments, and all the other debris we like to call our material culture.

This economic activity intersects with the second tier of culture, social institutions, which regulate reproduction of the work force, the transmission of the skills needed, the consumption of things, the behaviour governing trade and access to both the "natural" resources and participation in all the human activities along the way to the ultimate deposition of end products into dumps and latrines. These institutions include courtship, marriage, education, age grade initiation groups, social interest groups, and any systems of leadership and teaching to facilitate learning and make important decisions concerning the organization of activities.

Finally, in order to rationalize the kinds of activities and interactions that individual humans within their cultures must engage in frequently during the course of most days, there are sets of ideas about how things ought to be done (rules) and why (moral codes), as well as notions about cause and effect (magical, practical, philosophical, scientific) which variously rationalize why things work the way they do. If any of these elements, from ideological systems all the way down to basic technology, is not well integrated with the whole, it gives rise to conflicts of varying intensity that can lead to culture change.

There is a good deal of evidence that cultures tended to change very slowly and were highly optimized in terms of long term sustainability before about 12,000 BC. Since then, things have speeded up due mostly to the braking system being removed from the reproduction line. The rate of cultural change, including collapse and extinction, has accelerated considerably.

However, genetically speaking, the basic model that was adapted to hunting and gathering as an economic system remains the same today. For example the human brain shows a longer maturation pattern than any other living primate, with the pre-frontal cortex finally coming on line in a young human well into the 20's. This is no different today in kids in industrial societies than it is among kids in hunter-gatherer camps out in the Kalahari. It is a human universal.

Why the long childhood and why the teenager years? What is it about human cultures that takes us so bloody long to learn? I suspect it is not the economy, and not the technological complexity level. It is something that has not changed even now, from a 100,000 years ago. It is the institutional and ideological parts of culture, especially the universal sophistication of human languages, that takes up so much of the learning curve and requires the added input we get when our brain's executive finally takes a seat in our mental boardroom.

You can talk about an altruistic gene till the cows come home and you will get no nearer to understanding the reasons humans are the way they are until you take a good hard look at why we need self-control, inhibition of emotional impulses (both good and bad) and that additional, strategic, even Machiavellian, part of our cognitive system.

To me, that question can only be answered if we also take a good long look at how human biological evolution has come to interact with human cultures as our main survival systems. Why, for example, it did not always seem to be the smartest long term plan to simply get a bunch of guys together from "our" group to march over to the neighbours, beat them to a pulp and maybe steal their womenfolk. Could it be that there were times, in the human story, when a different approach might just have led to a bigger long term payoff? Trade networks spanning continents and gene flow ditto might give us a clue.

Comment 73 by Peter Grant Comment 72 by ccw95005

At that point group selection could fine tune them.

Genocide is not fine tuning. Evolution may be cruel, but it certainly isn't that wasteful. Wiping out entire groups is not progress, in any sense of the word.

Wiping out entire groups IS "progress" in every sense of the evolutionary word. Do you know how many species have gone extinct? The present horrible destabilization and destruction of various cultures is some sort of draconian selection procedure in action, wouldn't you say? Cultures often cannot simply adopt new technology without potentially fatal consequences for their traditional systems of economy, social institutions, and ideology. However, you may be right: the proliferation of cultural systems and of cultural systems of great internal complexity, may not in fact, be progress at all, in the long run.

Sorry about another long post. I am off to see a quack and hopefully am going to find a cure for this fever and dizziness before I post even longer comments and get kicked of this forum!!.

And, note to Michael, I am working on a book in fact, but I suspect my dearest friend and co-author (a bachelor, alas) ran off with some woman and I have to wait for him to come to back to his senses.

Mon, 28 May 2012 18:14:00 UTC | #944015

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 65 by Helga Vieirch

I am sincerely sorry about the lengthy comment. I have been running a bit of a fever these last few days, and no doubt that accounts for it. Delirium? Helga : )

Sun, 27 May 2012 02:20:32 UTC | #943747

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 64 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 44 by Zeuglodon

The problem with group selection and culture is that they encourage a bucketload of misconceptions. Group selection is not symbiosis. It is not simply the observation that some groups are better at surviving than others. It is not simply an extension of kin selection.

Of course! That is why I presented that little android thought experiment. What I was suggesting that the a culture is another thing entirely, made up of its own replicating forms. It does not even need a biological substrate to continue and to evolve.

Group selection is the suggestion that adaptations arise by the competitive survival and reproduction of collections of organisms, explicitly saying that it will encourage organisms to sacrifice their individual fitnesses for the group.

Culture is not about that. Culture does not, as it were, care what happens to the individuals or the group. It does not happen on the biological level at all.

There are a myriad problems with it as a replicator, and the only way to get it to work as a vehicle is to give each entity in the "group" (like a hymenopteran hive) a common altruistic gene. In other words, it has virtually no explanatory power anymore (the cases of altruism are already covered by much more comprehensive gene-centric explanations).

In that case the altruistic gene is irrelevant.

And "culture" is just a one-word answer that explains nothing by itself. Why do I eat takeaway pizza instead of forage for tubers? "Culture". Why do I speak English instead of Mandarin Chinese or Spanish? "Culture". How did humans get to be so cooperative? "Culture." I wish someone would explain more incisively, because "culture" just strikes me as an explanatory wastepaper basket. At least memetics could be falsified by neurophysiological analysis and theories for how the brain codes its information.

I suppose you can view culture as a thing of "shreds and patches" - some fine anthropologists might agree with you.

As it happens, I don't. Cultures are rooted in biological human communities. But they are not identical with interbreeding biological populations or "gene pools".

First of all, there are often whole collections of smaller, somewhat endogamous, biological communities within a any given culture.

Cultural systems, secondly, can have a nearly complete turn over of genetic constituents over the course of a few generations and still be the same cultural system. In a cultural system it would not be too astonishing to find that only 10% of the people living within a current culture are biologically related to (or descendants of) the people who were in that culture 100 years ago.

There is also, thirdly, a constant "gene flow" between different cultural groups, varying greatly with circumstances, but still of significance over the long evolutionary history of any culture. Discussions of inclusive fitness fail to account for this.

Some cultural systems are more successful than others in the competition for national resources, control of trade routes, attracting investment, attracting new members, and spreading "memes" into other cultures.

Inclusive fitness is far more appropriate when the concept is applied to particular kin groups within a culture, -and across cultural lines.

Once you have a disconnect between the success of particular genes and their deployment within a cultural system, or systems, it is not possible to speak of inclusive fitness.

Even within groups of social animals like elephants, whales, red deer, horses, wolves, macaques, baboons, and chimps, there is always a kin connection to the structure of the group. Leadership within such groups is not just a function of individual strength or intimidation but also of how big and supportive an individual's kin group is.

The kin group in humans, unlike that of chimps, includes both the fathers and the mothers AND it includes "in-laws" (affinity) as well as "blood" kin (consanginity). In humans, therefore we see a correspondingly complex set of strategies of the "in-group" for the beneficial placement of it's descendants. It is within these local "genepools" that one can talk of "inclusive fitness" in a meaningful way.

And of course, we all know that large (and therefore successful in terms of Darwinian fitness) kin-groups can straddle cultural boundaries.

Taking up the question of cultural evolution, then, we see we are dealing with something that is not fundamentally inherited biologically. It is learned. It is shared. Each individual can have a unique mix of cultural information, but this makes for useful diversity within each culture; upon which the selective forces that cause cultures to change and evolve, can act.

So, you can have genocide, but this is not always the same as the extinction of a culture. You also kill a language without either genocide or changing other aspects of the culture. If, for instance, a culture changes from using one language to using another - both the culture and the biological group may be the same as before but for this one thing... as has happened in the history of the world many times. So culture is not identical with language and is learned by a different brain "system".

We know that a child raised past a certain age without exposure to any form of language will never be able to speak. Can a human child raised without exposure to a culture be expected to act on "instinctive behavioural norms" ?

I don't think so. I think that it is the ease of acquiring both language and culture that represents the major "instinctual" behavioural norms in our species. I do not think that there is any "instinctively based" behavioural norm that falls outside of this cultural box, aside from suckling in infants, blinking in strong light, raising the hands to ward off a blow, and the need for a certain amount of sleep.

When it comes to reactions to threats from large dangerous animals, fire of snakes, mathematical reasoning, falling in love, mating behaviour and so on... I think most of the time people use their cultural norms to think with. They have a hard time thinking outside of the cultural box they were raised in. It might be that people who have grown up straddling, as it were, the boundary between two different cultures, and might have a wider range of boxes to think with. It might even be that if you have learned, not one, but two -or more- different "normal" ways of thinking and behaving, you might be more innovative in thinking of some third or forth way of solving a particular problem.

Experiencing frustration, anger, fear, pain, love and jealousy, and the drive for acceptance and companionship within a social group, and also the drive to compete for access to resources (which is what rank is all about in most species) are ALL normal in most social creatures. I don't feel I am climbing out on any unscientific limbs here.

But all of these could have existed in earlier humans WITHOUT LANGUAGE AND CULTURE AT THE MODREN LEVEL OF COMPLEXITY. Indeed, they undoubtedly did exist just so in early hominids. Our own modern species, however, evolved both language and culture to an extraordinary level, well beyond the communication and learned group behaviours we see in apes. elephants, whales, or any other social creature. What was the selection pressure driving this?  Ecological constraints, in particular the way human cultures have dealt with resource deprivation, offers some interesting insights. I suggest, in looking at the ethnographic evidence for indications of some species-wide behavioural responses, we need not worry so much about our instincts as if they were separate from our cultures.

This means that we will see consistent responses but proportionate to the options available to the people in each case.

We can look at the various cases where resources have failed to meet demand or actually declined due to environmental change. We can see conscious attempts to limit population in some cultures, not in all. We can see the development of kin-based food security systems (like the redistributive chiefdoms) in some, but not all. We see warfare of varying intensity in some, but not all.

A lot seems to depend on whether people had options to leave the area and find food, water, or shelter elsewhere. On islands like New Guinea or Tikopia, the situation was difficult to escape, and led to institutionalization of infanticide, permanent barring of marriage to younger sons, use of coitus interruptous, and cycles of warfare.

Among most sedentary fishing or horticultural peoples, this constellation of practices can vary from place to place. The association of high frequencies of intra-cultural hostilities with female infanticide has been postulated, and this would certainly brake population increase in two ways - by direct reduction in the number of woman having children across the whole region, and by increase male mortality due to increased raiding caused by turning women into scarce resources within the culture.

The cultural responses seem to be effective long term strategies designed to perpetuate the culture - even if at times the biological agents of that culture might find it so stressful that they die younger than they might have, had they lived in another culture, or if they could have escaped into any other more peaceful cultural system that presented itself!

A cultural system that finds a way of dealing with declining resources without constant civil war might enjoy greater popularity - and attract more migrants - than a culture that succumbed to this kind of solution. Insofar as human beings are in themselves resources, a cultural system might benefit from this; however in some cases, more people coming in only make things worse in a situation of dwindling resources. So one might interpret cases where immigration is generally discouraged as cases of cultural response to resource scarcity.

Modern states can simply discourage immigration or impose severe limits to it, as have Japan and New Zealand. But tribal societies achieved the same thing by shooting at all trespassers and by severely mutilating captives. The general glorification of violent behaviour such as Chagnon reported among the Yanomami are a case in point. Tales illustrating the ferocity of a particular tribe also serve to warn off intruders and discourage attempts to attack them and take their land. It is an example of "primitive public relations"

There is no quibbling about the capacity of cultures developing systems of belief that lead to wholesale slaughter of some portion of the population on just about any pretext. Being a German was not enough in Hitler's Germany if you were gay, Marxist, Gypsy, or Jew. Being Chinese was not good enough in the China of Mao Tse Tung - you also had to be free of any taint of upper class relations, higher education, merchant ancestry, or even traditional tribal families of high rank. People have been eliminated for being the wrong colour, the wrong religion, the wrong political leanings, the wrong level of education, and even for just being in the wrong place.

Is this evidence of the same "instinct" that leads Pan troglodytes sp. to attack and kill members of neighbouring groups?

Maybe. But after an isolation period of some 6 million years while the common ancestor of the Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus ( and Homo sapiens developed into these and some eleven other species, it is unwise to assume a direct genetic inheritance of this kind of aggression. We do not have any evidence that the common ancestor even exhibited such behaviour, since it is apparently absent in Pan paniscus (Bonobo), which only separated from the main branch with P. troglodytes about a million years ago.

Since P. paniscus has many characteristics in which it resembles humans more than with the common chimpanzee, such as pink lips, longer legs, tendency to walk bipedaly, constant sexual receptivity, a more egalitarian male-female social system, and large night-time camping groups (often a hundred bonobos come together at night in a common sleeping area, all linked through their maternal lines), and a tendency for sons to remain with their mothers life-long, thus reinforcing her social rank (but apparently without incest). And, unlike the common chimpanzee, the bonobos are always using sex to settle disputes, get shares of food, as a greeting ritual, and perhaps to diffuse aggression when two different groups meet.

Did all of this develop independently in early hominids four million years ago and the bonobos some 3 million years later? I doubt that. I suspect that the common ancestor of human, and both species of Pan, was a more likely to be like the Bonobo and that the first fully bipedal Australopithicines were more like bipedal Bonobos.

In this way, the evolutionary divergence of the Common chimp, and its splitting into three subspecies, could be seen as a successful adaptation to the heavier rainforest environment north of the Congo river, where a more arboreal ape with more aggressive territorial defence based on male cooperation, while females tended to leave their natal groups, would be more adaptive.

The common chimpanzee's modern behaviour can be assessed as being the result of at least a million years of adaptation to an environment where the best survival strategy was to have a group of males forming a closely bonded group, hierarchically ordered so as to dispense with too much escalation of squabbles among themselves, which held as large a territory as they could. The tremendous size and strength of the common chimp could be a recent adaptation to this strategy.

Into (and out of) this territory unrelated females could migrate, and these often formed friendships with the other females in the territory. The intense promiscuity of the female common chimp comes in handy as an adaptation that diffused competition among the bonded males for sex, and also made it less likely that any of the resident group males would be a danger to her infants, since any one of them could be the father. Common Chimps have been observed killing and eating the infants born to females who enter the group already pregnant.

This is not, however, the pattern we see in the bonobo. Nor is it the pattern we see in any known human group. Both the bonobo and the hominids evolved in a different direction, possibly because they were in more resource rich environments. They could keep a larger social unit within a common foraging area. During the day this larger group splits into smaller foraging parties.

In the bonobo these are made up of a older female with her sons and daughters. And older daughter with offspring might still forage with the maternal group, but as her sons got larger she might no longer forage quite as close, since then too many animals would be concentrated on too few berry bushes, wild nuts, melons, or other foods. In the evening the whole "tribe" consisting of some twenty or twenty five such smaller units, would reassemble to share a sleeping grove.

And what did early hominids do? The best evidence we have indicates that they also split into smaller foraging parties during the day, but that at some point they began to bring their food BACK to the sleeping area and to SHARE it there.

The evidence also indicates that they began to develop division of labor, with males going out, alone or in groups, to hunt and scavenge, and females going out, most likely in small groups of related individuals, to gather plant foods.

At some point during this period of adaptation, males and females formed long term consort relationships which eventually gave rise to an intensely powerful drive which all humans know as "falling in love". This drive, which appears to be completely unconscious and out of the individual's control, led to the formation of long term economic partnerships between individuals who raised a child together. What we see in modern human hunter-gatherers still living in the kind of open savanna parkland that early hominids were adapting to suggests that the early human foraging strategy was based on abundant but widely scattered resources.

The size of the territory that could support a group of a hundred bonobos is considerably smaller than the size of the territory required to support a hundred humans... so perhaps early hominids were adapting to this kind of open savanna where several hours of walking just to gather the food or catch an animal were required. To compensate for the caloric cost of such a strategy, the calories in the food were made more available by the practice of cooking them. Even a small amount of better digestion could make a difference to survival.

Imagine the early hominid community of a hundred spending most of their time split into a series of temporary sleeping camps. The fires that are kept going in each of these camps serve as a defensive shield. The predators that formerly made the hominid's ancestors sleep in temporary nests in the trees, know better now than to tackle a human camp group.

The predators might still present a problem in certain times and seasons, so even small groups of female foragers sometimes left toddling youngsters to play all day near the hearth, under the watchful eye of an adult, especially older males and females who may not be required in the food quest very often. In my own imagination, it is not too hard to see, in the afternoon, the foraging females returning with enough plant food of various kinds to feed everyone in camp for two or three days. This was the norm in most of the foraging camps among the Kalahari hunter-gatherers I studied in the 1970's.

Then, I imagine, a couple of hunting males return, empty handed and discouraged, with only a few ostrich eggs and a big lizard. And finally the last two hunters show up, quietly communicating with the others and asking for assistance in following up an injured quarry. All the adult males and two older females go out again and come back late in the evening, laden with meat cut from a dead antelope before the local lions closed in on it.

The meat is strictly divided among all the family groups in the camp along lines of kinship. Each male and female and their offspring retire to their own hearth to cook some of the meat and cut the rest into strips to be hung in the trees to be dried by the sun in the next few days. I could be describing a day in the life of Kalahari hunt-gatherers. If these were modern day hunter-gatherers, what might follow over the next few days is that the entire group stays in the camp, resting, talking, telling the children the story of the hunt and showing them how to make snares,. digging sticks, and how turn the hide of the antelope into a useful capelike garment that can be used as a bag for gathered food, a blanket, and a rain cape. Within weeks the camp would likely break up, with some groups moving off together and others going to stay with relatives they want to see again.

As each camp reforms at the end of the day the personnel may have changed a bit but this brings news of others in the larger unit, and gossip is eagerly listened to. Each person grows up knowing several hundred people by name and relationship. Within the larger territory, the whole population may come together once or twice a year for a seasonal larger hunt or for the gathering of a particular staple nut or tuber,or to fish in the dwindling pools of the seasonal rivers.

What i have described for hunter-gatherers here involves no ongoing pattern of institutional violence. Human emotions can still run high, and tensions over the choices of mates can be explosive, especially among the younger individuals. So violence is not absent, it just is not often about territory or food resources. It is more likely to be about love and loyalties. It is likely to fall into the category we call "murder" and "assault" than warfare or raids.

We spend a million years becoming human on the African savanna as a species whose special adaptive system is culture. However thai does not mean humans are adapted to living in African Savanna. It means humans are adapted to living within a foraging culture. In the course of that time, earlier and more "archaic" humans left Africa and scattered all across Eurasia, but these too, were foragers, and their cognitive and behavioural evolution was just as subject to the selective pressures for optimization to this way of life.

Sun, 27 May 2012 01:10:09 UTC | #943738

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 38 by Helga Vieirch

I was in the midst of revising this comment when I ran out of time, so I apologize for not correcting my grammar.

Imagine a future time, when there is no more DNA and no more biological evolution as we know it. Human culture, however, is still preserved in the collective activities of android beings. These androids can replicate and repair themselves, although sometimes they must discard and recycle units too damaged to be salvaged. The ideas they discuss with one another, and books they read, the work they do, however, are all focussed on carrying forward through time, the culture of the humans that created them a million years ago. They have an economic system whereby they extract raw material from the planet to build and repair themselves, and their shelters, and the objects they use to store knowledge and to carrying out the work of understanding the universe better. They are, for example, building better and better space-based android stations for studying the rest of the solar system, and they are involved in a great venture into the nearest solar system. Among themselves, they listen to music, both old "human" classics, and inventions of their own. They enjoy conversation about various aspects of existence. They find jokes about how funny it would be if they could make an android that reproduced "biologically", especially in the old human way. The consensus is that egg-laying would be better! Most of their time is spend resting, while their batteries recharge, and then working to maintain the solar and other systems of electricity capture that provide immediate fuel. Great teams must be assembled to do this work.

Some groups of androids have broken away from the main group and have an alternative set of heads, customs, and economy. They conduct raids on the larger groups, stealing vital electronics and even essential metals for replacement parts. They sometimes wantonly damage shelters and even have been known to carry off individuals, which they then proceed to "reprogram" which their own operating system.

What do you think might happen eventually in such an evolving system?

Fri, 25 May 2012 16:43:49 UTC | #943515

Go to: The Descent of Edward Wilson (with Polish translation)

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 36 by Helga Vieirch

Richard is wrong. Wilson was not talking about genes… or even the kind of evolutionary understanding that can be advanced by the study of how genes, as replicators, pass through time and space. Wilson was tailing about another set of replicating systems, ones that require not to so much individual bodies but who sets of them interacting, and the things that are being replicated are not confined to single bodies. Despite all this, though, he was talking about an evolutionary issue.

He was talking about culture. How it is transmitted, how one cultural system competes with another, and who such systems constitute evolving entities beyond the level of the organic.

He was not talking about a collection of memes pasted together and attached to their biological replicators, either. There is more to a cultural system than memes.

Fri, 25 May 2012 16:01:58 UTC | #943504

Go to: Open letter and video re threat to GM Research

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 79 by Helga Vieirch

Don't forget, this experiment is about wheat. Not pine trees. And we DO eat pine nuts, by the way.

Tue, 22 May 2012 15:10:56 UTC | #942844

Go to: 'Save the planet', science leaders urge G8 governments

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 35 by Helga Vieirch

@ Alan4discussion

You know, I think people, in general, even HERE, are refusing to look. Not that it will make any difference.

Sun, 20 May 2012 02:59:24 UTC | #942343

Go to: Mathematics: stupid and clever questions for people who understand

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 47 by Helga Vieirch

I have a feeling this question:

Comment 43 by hhobbit Are humans smarter than bacteria in a jar?

…was not so much about how clever bacteria are. Rather it was addressed to the question of whether humans have shown any grater awareness of when their exponential growth rate is going to get them to the end of their resources and start causing a massive die off. This analogy has been used by many scientists who are trying to illustrate the current human rate of population growth on this planet and what it implies about our future is we do not start to control it. See the following examples: David Suzuki, Albert Bartlett, Geoffrey West, and others. Many others.

Fri, 18 May 2012 15:14:43 UTC | #942190

Go to: 'Save the planet', science leaders urge G8 governments

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 33 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 32 by GPWC

We have talked about this before BTW, when you introduced the topic of "end of the world" scenarios.

I have taken a look at peak oil, but not a very close look. There are only so many things you can worry about. One of the problems for the environmental movement is that they have cried wolf a bit too much and now people have got bored with the same old doom and gloom.

The people who are worried about and who write about Peak OIl are not environmentalists. Most of them, originally, were petroleum geologists or physicists or mathematicians. This issue is about listening to the scientists, as is the climate change issue. There have been a lot of attempts to call Peak Oil a myth, like this one, which ends by dismissing worries about fossil fuels being finite, assuring the reader that this kind of thing is:

"> ...propaganda is as old as mankind

herself — the only real difference being the agenda.

Which agenda is this: let your big benevolent government regulate and control fossil fuels and all other energy besides, and let this same big benevolent government control your property as well, and thereby your life.

It’s called Environmentalism. But it’s really Neo-Marxism.

And Marxism by any other name is, and always will be, the same plain old discredited Marxism."

Frankly, I do not buy the data this blogger cites. I find the work of scientists like Colin Campbell, Richard Duncan, M. K. Hubbert, and Albert Bartlett more credible. (Bartlett, by the way, is more well known for his analysis of population growth than for his views on energy, but he tied the two together after examining Hubbert's thesis.)

In my youth, I was guilty of this crime - repeating, uncritically and without proper knowledge, the dramatic and prescient environmental disaster stories that I had read about from Greenpeace or whoever.

First of all, repeating disaster stories is not a crime. It is merely folly. The responsibility of the individual is to be critical and asses for themselves the validity of the knowledge that is presented to them.

Most never came to pass or have not done so yet. I am jaded, now, I'm sorry to say, and peak oil is just the most recent environmental scare story.

Again, this is not an "environmental scare story" (and it is not recent, as the link above to the "debunking" blog rightly points out.) But I cannot say I do not understand why you say you are jaded. It is too easy for alarms, misinformation, and conspiracy theories to spread like wildfire, especially on the internet. If you believe everything you read or see on You Tube you would also be awaiting the Rapture, or asserting that 9/11 was orchestrated by the CIA or Mossad, or that aliens are being held prisoner by the FBI.

When I first heard about Peak Oil I was extremely sceptical. I found, however, that the debunkers had no real data, and were often ultra conservatives with no real scientific background. Moreover the debunkers tended to use the same tactics as the climate change deniers. I grew increasingly convinced that the scientific evidence does support Hubbert's calculations. He was right about the timing of Peak Oil in the United states, for instance; while the debunking blogger I cited earlier actually lied in saying that the United States is today the world leader in oil production. That has not been true since the seventies.

I'm not saying there is no truth in it, and for economic reasons alone, let alone environmental, we should be getting off our oil addiction asap.

I think so too.

Tue, 15 May 2012 15:14:39 UTC | #941611

Go to: The Origin of Consciousness in The Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 41 by Helga Vieirch

Well, I don't know how I can assert it, come to think of it. But i've lived with foragers, pastoralists, slash and burn horticulturists, all in Africa, as well as intensive farmers here in Canada, and see no evidence in any of my experience that suggests they do not. There are common expressions in these other languages that translate as "and so I said to myself…." or "I argued with myself all night about what to do"… In fact I never even considered the idea that this was anything important at all. I just took it as a given that they all, being human, did have an inner dialogue.

Tue, 15 May 2012 07:10:33 UTC | #941544

Go to: Lawrence Krauss at the Reason Rally Wash. DC 3/24/2012

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 17 by Helga Vieirch

This was a highly political speech. He is right. That might not make a difference, because I doubt that anyone who needed to hear this talk was there, or would have listened or even understood, had they been. This was not reported on the news, in fact the whole rally was basically a nonevent in terms of coverage by media.

Tue, 15 May 2012 04:06:40 UTC | #941531

Go to: 'Save the planet', science leaders urge G8 governments

Helga Vieirch's Avatar Jump to comment 30 by Helga Vieirch

Comment 29 by GPWC

Thank you. This idea that IQ is so simply heritable is a frequent misconception.

As to the substance of this discussion so far, I want to remind everyone that humanity will likely face a major die-off during this century no matter what is decided by any government, elected or otherwise. It is too late in the day for anything else. And it will not be only the poorer nations that suffer, since the economic collapse that causes the die-off will be universal, if uneven in intensity. Things look considerably more grim this spring than they looked even a year ago, because Fukushima's dangers had not yet become apparent. But we are clearly beginning the inevitable slid down the Hubbert peak of world oil production, or governments would not be tempted to such desperate measures as permitting deep sea drilling off the coast of Scotland, or allowing vast parts of its western heartland to be turned into a poisoned wasteland in pursuit of bitumen (Alberta).

It is true that the "voters" want jobs and cheap fuel. That is partly because they are completely ignorant about reality. And whose fault is that? Well, how many of you here on this site have ever taken Peak Oil seriously, or looked up some of the publications from members of the Post Carbon Institute? How many of you have ever taken the time to look at the writings or interviews of Colin Campbell? How many of you like to think, even today, that technology will find a way to allow our economic system to persist in giving us the standard of living we have?

This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. I find it encouraging that people here (and a lot of other bright, scientifically trained folks), have voiced concern about population, and rightly so. It is a huge part of the problem, but until now, it has been the main driver of growth in the world economy, which has always sought to turn raw materials into consumer "products".

We are at the point of no return, or nearly there, in terms of running hard up against some very real limits to growth. One of these limits was Peak OIl, and that appears to have occurred worldwide between 2005 and 2008. Since these limits are often only visible in the rear view mirror, we may actually already have passed the limits for certain other systems, but it will not become clear for another ten years.

By then, we might be looking at world with no surviving great apes in the wild, a world where seafood is only eaten by the very rich (and even then, perhaps only after a furtive purchase on the black market), where most people cannot afford to use their cars on a daily basis, where unemployment has climbed to the double digits in most older industrialized countries, and where theft and banditry have become so common that people mount guard over their vegetable gardens in the cities and towns, and farmers regularly hire armed guards to watch over their flocks and crops. A world where starvation and epidemics again stalk the land, even in industrialized countries… is hard to imagine. It goes against all the experience of the past 300 years that "progress" will stop, let alone go into reverse.

Just wait. We humans are in for some very hard times, collectively speaking. The resurrection of Nazism and other ultraconservative political ideologies in certain European countries is not an accident, but should serve as a warning of what shape our political future might just take as the world is convulsed by the rage of disappointed masses who may well blame minorities or economically dependent people for the deteriorating economy (note that is category may include the so called 1%).

Personally, I think the scientists who petitioned the G8 used language far too gentle and respectful, given the seriousness of the situation. I wonder what the news stories would have been like if they had been more blunt?

Tue, 15 May 2012 03:37:45 UTC | #941528