Thursday, 26 November 2009

orca tradition

There is an appealing framework in Boyd and Richerson’s book on social learning and adaptation [1] on how the environment’s variability generates the pressure to adapt.

This came to mind watching the latest episode of Attenborough’s Life series on Hunters and Hunted. There is a beautiful account towards the end of the program about an orca mother using her invention to hunt seals in a new way -- she is the only one doing it, but her calf is probably learning while being with her.

This could be the perfect illustration to the Boyd-Richerson model, re the evolutionary origin of the ability to learn as adults from each other, and thus the rise of complex culture. If there are a lot of new challanges/opportunities (perhaps as variation in the environment increases), individuals will come up with independent innovations. Then those young that are able to pick the innovations up, will have an adaptive benefit. If there are a lot of these opportunities around, and they keep emerging, then there will be a lot of individual innovations, and a pressure for the young to (a) have the ability to learn, and (b) perhaps to push this ability out to further and further age. This would then lead to the evolution for learning from each other as adults, and the possibility of the fast changing (perhaps, evolving) culture.

[1] Boyd, R., and P.J. Richerson, (2005), The Origin and Evolution of CulturesOUP. (Here is a review with a good summary of the book.)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

the 40 years of Reverend SS in Papua

I have a problem. I keep washing my hands, and it doesn’t come off. Immediately after it, I rubbed my palm on the wet grass outside, but that did not help. The soap back at the hotel might be antibacterial, but evil does not come off that easily. Now, I guess, his handshake will just haunt me forever.

He was in the Hitlerjugend. His dream was to join the SS. He did not tell me, “my Hungarian friend”, whether he succeeded or not. All we know is that he found himself in Mexico right after the war. He became a Christian - “in two weeks, would you believe that?” He wanted to go to Africa to be a medical missionary.

When he finished his studies and his mission finally came up, in 1968, he was assigned to New Guinea. He arrived at a tribe called the Sougp, at the western end of Papua. They were “dirty”. Their lives were “miserable”: revolving around “black magic” and “bride-price”. Some of them “had never washed ever in their whole lives”.

(Now, I washed my hand again. There is still no effect.)

These people, the Sougp tribe, lived on the mountains, around two lakes, up at around 2000 meters. He had his wife with him and their sons. They had built a house, and had most of their food given to them by the Sougp, the rest flown in.

They brought the “word of Christ” and a lot of medicine. He taught them not to be afraid of spirits of the forest, of black magic, to be nice to each other. He taught them that “to pay a lot for a bride is not the right way, you only pay compensation for the man that he will be without a pension, you do not ask for more”. He learned their language and translated the bible. The medicine he brought, the hygiene he taught, and the “respect for women, and giving up the bride-price” led to more kids being born, and fewer people dying. When the population started to grow too fast, they felled all the trees in the land. Then he went to America to fetch high-altitude corn, and taught them what to do with it.

The spirits of the forest are now gone. You can “use the forest as you should”, he tells me. The black magic is over. “They saw that we have stronger spirits than that. You do not have to fear one another. You can travel, you can go and visit each other without harming each other.” People now make larger and larger plantations on shifting forest clearings. They produce sweet potatoes and gather prawns for eating, but also produce “white Irish potatoes” for the market on the coast, together with garlic, shallots, and celery. Then they return with rice, sugar, palm oil and salt. The nutrition level has actually deteriorated, his nurse wife keeps nagging him...

He did not bother to take notes about the belief system, or understand the way the economy or the society works. After four decades, he is still mostly ignorant about the basics. “I am just not interested in these things. I gave them the word of Christ. That is enough, isn’t it?”

After two and a half decades, he started to turn some of his disciples into missionaries. By now, in the past 11 years, he has dispatched 16 Sougp missionary couples to neighbouring tribes.

What can I say to him? I was speechless. Reverend SS. He was just a child, really when the war was over. Whatever reason there may have been for him to leave for Latin America, who cares. (Well, actually, I do, as he still seems to be proud to say the words of ‘Hitler Youth’ and ‘SS’.) The destruction he has caused - as his penitence - is an adult, grown-up sin.

We had a chat about the missionary work ahead. Unsuspecting, he told me about the areas that missionaries still have not covered in Papua… Luckily, there are quite a lot of swamps here.

At the end I tried to slip out. But there was no way around it. He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily. At age close to 80, he still has a strong handshake.

I wrote the note above last year, but decided to keep it to myself until this moment. Reading it now, I am intrigued by seeing the moral dilemma of development encapsulated in phenomena of such extremes. We are at a loss to find a global value-framework to judge this man. I am acutely aware that my own assessment of his deeds is rooted in the history of the culture that I come from.

Yet, it is difficult to judge his actions even within my own value-framework. He was ready to destroy a self-sustaining culture, and to watch the deprivation of a large forest in one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the world. Opposed to that stands the introduction of education allowing global integration, and improvements in healthcare lengthening life expectancy.

The fact that the indigenous Papuans are not really in a position to weigh these factors either, does not help. There seems to be a consensus now that the ‘World’ should let the Papuans decide. But, given Papua’s amazing ecological and socio-cultural assets, the World might come to regret this.

The closest I got to a ‘solution’ was to come up with the notion of a ‘global impact community’. But, I’m afraid, it is not much more than a shameless excuse to overrule the principle of self-determination. The idea behind ‘global impact community’ is, that even if there are no common norms shared by all cultures around the world, all societies use and affect global public goods. The Biosphere being the most important of these. This perhaps could give us guidance about the cases and the extent to which the global community could and perhaps should set local development rules.*

In a way the notion of ‘global impact community’ is a particular application of Arrow’s impossibility theorem. There is no way we can guarantee agreement among our cultures. Unless, of course, there is some part of preference ordering that is shared by all. Shared preference ordering could easily come from norms originating in the evolution of our species, as well as from the recognition that our societies have grown out of the buffers this finite global system provides.

I believe that morality is a societal phenomenon, and not a set of abstract values floating out there. Then then won’t be any norms guiding your behaviour unless there is a reference society in place. The Papuan Highlanders’ cultures and my culture diverted 45,000 years ago. There has been a mere 50 year period for ‘reintegration’ of the two. (Well, in a rather one-sided way.) There is no shared ‘reference society’ whatsoever.

A made-up, abstract global society might just do the trick.

*This experience also contributed to the idea of an oral history project, in which early missionaries - some of whom are still alive: the first wave of missionary centres in the Highlands of West Papua arrived only 53 years ago -- and Papuans who were either young adults affected by their arrival or children educated by the missionaries back then would be interviewed. The idea would be to try to recover some of that lost history, before it is too late. If you’re interested, please write to me.

Monday, 27 July 2009

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

baseline assumption: Religion has an evolutionary origin, that is, humans have an inborn drive towards religious thoughts.

the question: I wonder if assuming that the origin of religion is some form of institutionalisation of morality was a mistake. It is fairly straightforward, I would think, that large groups of supersmart chimps would need some form of internalised rules regarding behaviour towards their fellow group members. And thus the evolutionary origin of morality could be explained. But religion is not necessarily an outgrowth of morality. Seeing how missionaries ‘converting the savages’ altered the behaviour of isolated tribes towards their forests, begs the question if the origin of religious thought might not be in the same place: regulating the way people use their environments.

the hypothesis: It seems that people who live in (a) small tribes, (b) seem to follow archaic, or at least very old religions, (c) are isolated from others, and are (d) living in a unique environment, tend to have a set of religious explanations about their environment, and in particular, stories that end up with them not exploiting their resources in a non-sustainable manner. Often, it feels as if the intra-group morality was an add-on to, rather than the centre of these thoughts.

(The societal morality bit would then gain larger prominence as the groups open up forming ever larger sets of populations. Thus the above hypothesis is not necessarily going against the observation that large societies have mass religions with a focus on social norms.)

Thus the hypothesis is that religion evolved as a means to stop overuse of the environment. Those groups of humans that came up with stories of the forest animals being gods and thus limited their hunting would have been in advantage compared to others who did not and thus overhunted leading to starvation. Out of those groups who came up with these stories, those who would have had some form of drive towards such thoughts would have had higher temporal stability to these stories. And norm stability through time would have been the centre to the fitness of such a group behaviour, as the whole point is long term sustainability.

Maybe, the key could have been the halting of tragedy of commons type over-harvesting of difficult to sheriff resources. What you need -- as an evolution designer ;) -- is norm following when the forest people are alone, and less so when the whole group is there to watch over you shoulder.

The caveat is that it is difficult to see how the above could have happened without group evolution of this species…

re evidence. No idea what evidence could possibly be for this, unless a religion gene would be properly found and revealed. But a drive generating religious behaviour would probably be too complicated to be in just one, simple gene. (Although a pill that suppresses the relevant proteins and thus relieves one of one’s religious duties would probably a block buster...) Some more maths re how group evolution was unlikely to have happened could kill this idea off, though.

Yet, despite the silliness of this ‘religion as evolutionary environment protection’ idea, I find it quite appealing.

What’s your view?


here is a batch of people interested in the evolution of religion. many of their sites offer interesting stuff

this is a good overview of the problems of morality and religion

Thursday, 23 July 2009

institutionalised celibacy

What is the role of institutionalised celibacy in the emergence of societies with large population size?

1. Every human group - at least after the big expansion phase - needs to have some form of population control. Non-contraception, this can take varied forms: abandoning new born babies (before the costly emotional attachment), head hunting pre-puberty girls (the number of women being the limiting factor in child births), frequent wars between neighbouring villages (say, triggered by 'the curse' that the other village/tribe had put on the crops and thus resulted in bad harvest and the expectation of the coming shortage), human sacrifice rituals (often it is young women who are deemed to be witches to be killed, although sometimes it is young men), or removing a section of the population from procreation by some form of permanent or temporal ban of sexual activity.

2. It seems that there might be significant difference among the above forms of population control, in terms of cost to the society. This cost might vary a lot along population size. That is, a set of small villages with mostly separate social networks could have a headhunting tradition without it being too disruptive to the stability of their societies. The destabilisation effect would be more costly in a large society where texture of the social network is more evenly distributed.

3. It seems that out of all the possible non-contraception forms of population control, the institutionalised celibacy stands out as being ideal for large small-world societies. You reduce the number of children from a part of the population, without the destabilising effect that would come from killing them. At the same time, you can use them in one of the many non-family functions that large societies give rise to.

4. Institutionalisation of this merge between celibacy and societal functions for a group of people provides temporal stability to the function, and could also reduce the cost of it.

5. Some form of institutionalised celibacy evolved in many different cultures independently, and it seems that the time of the appearance of these institutions coincided with population expansion. If this was to stand, it would be a great support to the above argument.

I am not sure what the consequence would be for the global society. Maybe there is not much, given the contraception technology becoming dominant. In this case, there would always remain some cultural remnants of the different forms of the celibacy institutions, perhaps getting occasionally stronger in times of resource shortage, but gradually eroding. Or perhaps there will be a new wave and form of it, maybe along some global green political issue -- although it is unlikely to be 'instinctive' as even if we subscribed to group evolution, any form of genetic evolution would be impossible for the relevant groups size.

What do you think?

Friday, 8 May 2009

do virtual group members crowd out real ones?

Since Robin Dunbar had put his group size theory forward (an early summary is his Grooming, Gossip book, for instance), we seem to know about the 'natural' group size. Some fifteen years ago, Vili and I had long conversations about the modern media creating 'quasi-archaic virtual group members'. People gossip about politicians, celebrities, soap opera characters as if these were their friends, in fact as if these were members of their own Dunbarian groups.

This week I got to go to a talk of Robin Dunbar, in which he had put forward the latest version of his social brain hypothesis. Which in turn reminded me of an old question that we were wondering about back then: do these virtual groupmembers push out real-life friends from the inner circle? If the group size is limited to, say 150-200 people, then following the life of a large number of public figures perhaps limits our capacity to gossip about and groom with members of our own real group. Or maybe not.

I asked Robin Dunbar about this, he said they never checked.

Anybody with an answer? (Or bother to check it at that?)


Checking would probably be rather straightforward: get a set of people, for each of them measure media consumption, assess virtual group size, assess real group size. Regress.


If this hypothesis was to turn out to be confirmed, then the consequences might be interesting. Obviously: what is the effect on social cohesion? But also: to what extent do these virtual members affect the social identity of people? Probably there is a language barrier. Is that so? Is there a growing set of globally shared virtual group members (how many people on the planet have seen the puppy of the Obama's or know about the Obama date nights)? Is anyone engineering these virtual group members as such, or the celebrity PR merely evolved that way? And many more questions, I presume.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The Quest For Sifr

Since I live the life of an intellectual pleasure addict, questions keep coming up which are neither particularly deep, nor are properly formulated. Yet, it's fun to think about them.

Thus the raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog is being a trap for unlucky visitors, should they have the answer. And could be bothered to write them down.

(This is all human science here. If you are interested in my global economics side, please visit the blog 'global economics and structures'.)