Thursday, February 25

Human Ethology: Induction Machines

When I started writing ethological analyses of various disparate topics a few weeks ago, I found myself running up against a particular issue which seemed unavoidable. Rather than skirt that issue, I'm going to approach it now and explain the "deal" so I can refer back to it later.

The problem we face as human is that we're inclined to make inductive leaps. We're designed to do it, in fact. This goes way beyond the philosophical Problem of Induction, which addresses the validity of science. The fact that we jump to so many conclusions certainly implies that we're not naturally good at science, which is why it takes so many years to perfect our logic for it, and even then mistakes are very common.

How many times have you heard someone say something like "So much for global warming!" when a big snow hits your city early in wintertime? Its called global warming for good reason, yet a single data point from a single city on a single day of the year is enough to bring serious doubt into some minds. That's at least a little bit dumb.

Malcolm Gladwell provides a highly enjoyable discussion of human induction issues in the modern world in his book Blink. Many more books have been written about this human weakness, in fact. Such books tend to answer the questions of How - how are we predisposed to make quick choices? For my part, I think I'll talk a little bit about why, which as usual takes us back to our hunter-gatherer buddies.

Imagine yourself in the position of an ancestral hunter-gatherer (H-G). For starters, you live in the open fields, barely shielded from the elements by crude structures. You reside with a group of about 50 people. You'll live with and know these people your entire life, likely, unless you get married into an adjoining village. Then you'll meet 50 more people. There will be people you encounter from surrounding communities which will raise the total number above a hundred, maybe even close to 200 depending on your particular culture.

You lead a nomadic life, moving from place to place so as not to expend all the resources in a given area and go hungry. Over the course of the seasons, you might have to change your strategies, but this is cyclical. Years go by without significant change.

My work with the baboons comes in surprisingly handy here. Baboon live in dry, savanna landscapes, as our ancestors and many hunter gatehrers still do. The great apes and lesser apes (gibbons) all live in dense forests, which present different challenges to staying alive (though it would be great to get some first hand exposure to the anthropological sites in Africa). Whether you're a chimp, gibbon, or baboon, there's one thing you have in common: life is pretty boring.

The same goes for hunter-gatherers. The gatherers have to spend most of the day searching for food in order to gather enough to get by. The hunters have to spend multiple days looking for game, wounding it, and then often chasing it at length across the savannas while it slowly loses energy. Much of the "excess" time is spent with chores and upkeep. Those simple core axes don't sharpen themselves. The days are long, tiring, and monotonous. There just isn't a lot of new stuff happening. Things don't change.

Life was largely formulaic, at least in the mid to long term, i.e. where to go next for food, who to marry your daughter to. Its in the short term that people needed to make decisions as individuals. But quick decisions were pretty unimportant, except in one particular case: when your life is at risk.

When faced with life or death decisions, you had to make decisions based on the small amounts of info you had. The most important thing to do was make it quickly (because otherwise you'd probably just take a dirt nap). That meant jumping to conclusions. The sacrifices for this behavior were small - so you jump to a conclusion and offend someone in a conversation. You'll both get over it. That's a small price to pay for being equipped with the mental architecture that will save your life time after time.

Under the circumstances of the great outdoor savannas, we were damn good at making smart decisions quickly. But we don't live in the savannahs anymore. We live in fast moving, rapidly changing, crowded civilizations. This creates two problems:
  1.  The quick decisions we don't turn out as well as we might think because we're a bit out of place.
  2. We're called on to make logical, thought out decisions, which we're not very good at.
I have no solutions to offer for these problems. At least not stated as such. They're too big and too deeply ingrained in our biology. But I can offer solutions to the effects ancestral baggage such as this, I just needed to get this basic thing out of the way. Our snap judgments can still be very useful and accurate, but they need to be applied differently.

I think this might as well be the best time for me to shamelessly expose my favorite sociobiology quote of all time:
It seems clear that human beings are the most flexible and adaptable creatures on earth, capable of choosing their own destiny. At the same time, it is also clear that there is a definite genetic influence on many aspects of our behavior, especially when it comes to sex, violence, parenting, even tendencies for altruism and selfishness. The more we understand that influence, the more free we are to chart our own course.
The fact that we manage to live in giant cities and have these ethological problems is a good sign. The next step is to continue our upwards course while being mindful of our origins. Humans are exceptional at being able to pick up new skills and learn them until they become second nature. Rather than skirt these ethological issues, we ought to be working with them, taking advantage of our natural strengths while cultivating new ones.

But enough proselytizing. Next time: ethology and microblogging. Yes, I am entirely serious. Long story made short, Google wanted me to start using Buzz, so I did, got seriously annoyed, started looking at it critically, then realized that there is so much wrong with microblogging from an ethological perspective. The Internet may prove to be a common topic for these discussions since when I don't live in Africa I live here, and also because I hear people on the internet like reading about the internet. So meta.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of your topics benefit from the detailed thought and discussion you can't really get from microblogging. It is an interesting analog to ethology, though.