Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, by Geoffrey Miller

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Some of you may remember the excellent book, The Mating Mind, which Geoffrey Miller (an evolutionary psychologist) published in 2000. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the evolution of intelligence: as a fitness indicator in sexual selection. Miller’s recent book, Spent. (with the period) Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, delivers just as much creativity.

Miller’s main premise is that much of our consumer behavior is governed by a (usually subconscious) desire to advertise ourselves to prospective mates. Of course, as with human intelligence, this behavior gets used in lots of contexts that are separate from the actual mating game (e.g. by older people). In this premise, Miller goes against the assumptions of many economists (that consumers are rational purchasers) and even against many other evolutionary psychologists (that consumers purchase things to gratify themselves).

In selecting a mate, what does an animal want to know? With the human animal, what a prospective mate wants to know is not just the quality of genes, but the quality of character. Miller says that a person’s character (which has a substantial genetic basis) can be summarized by six features: general intelligence, plus “the big five” that have been an important part of psychological measurement: openness (e.g. to new ideas), conscientiousness (reliability), agreeableness (friendliness), stability (e.g. of character), and extraversion. Miller explains that consumers sometimes spend a lot of money, and a lot of effort, to advertise these characteristics, even to the extent of negating a great deal of self-gratification. The advertisements must be, as much as possible, reliable or costly indicators—that is, difficult to fake. Consider one example: ecological conscientiousness. Rather than just to be unobtrusively green—by driving a small internal combustion car, or by not consuming as much—many people want to advertise their greenness, by buying a hybrid car that may not get much better mileage than a small internal combustion car but which costs a lot more, and everybody knows it. Miller gives many examples.

But sometimes Miller, who seems to be an impulsive writer, goes way too far. For example, he points out that an IQ test, or an SAT score, is a much cheaper measurement of general intelligence than is an expensive college degree. If all that an employer wants to know is how smart you are, why bother with college? A college transcript is also an indicator of conscientiousness: did you show up for class and do the work? Grades of D and F on a transcript are indicators of unreliability in a prospective employee. But surely there are less expensive ways of demonstrating conscientiousness. He even discussed fake degrees as if they might not be just as useful as real ones. I almost felt like I was reading The Wizard of Oz, giving the straw man a diploma and the lion a medal. And that is what Miller, himself an academician, has to say about college education. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t notice him discussing the value of things that you actually learn in college. I don’t want the nurse at the clinic taking a blood sample to be just smart and conscientious; I also want that nurse to know the difference between a vein and an artery! I almost got the feeling that Miller has some unhealed wounds in his academic career, though I do not know what they might be. There I go, psychoanalyzing an evolutionary psychologist! Of course, he was probably joking.

In one case, Miller discusses the “latent prison-gang-rape aggressiveness of many American SUV model names.” He said that you can recognize this if you stick the word [I am not making this up] “anal” in front of model names: Anal Expedition, Anal Explorer, Anal Commander… These are actual examples he uses. After sticking “anal” in front of all of these SUV names, he concludes the very thing he imposed, that SUV names suggest prison gang rapes. Surely a psychologist should recognize the absurdness of this. This must be a joke, although he did not suggest it even subtly. He said he would not be surprised to see an SUV called the Buick Water-Boarder.

He also makes some unrealistic proposals. Once again, I cannot tell if he is joking, although I assume he is. He said we could have numbers tattooed on our foreheads that are measurements of our six characteristics, starting, I assume, with IQ. Tattoos are easy to fake, so he suggests the tattoos should be dispensed only by licensed and reliable tattooers. This would make it easy for us to find compatible mates without having to pay for expensive courtship. And he suggests that income taxes be replaced by consumption taxes, with wasteful consumption being taxed the most. That is actually a good idea but he makes no suggestions for how to even begin doing it.

Geoffrey Miller is brilliant and I learned a lot from this book. But I got the impression that I was reading the Hunter S. Thompson of the evolutionary psychology world. You can decide for yourself whether this is something you might want to read.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Evolution of Everything, by Mark Sumner

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The Evolution of Everything: How Selection Shapes Culture, Commerce, and Nature, by Mark Sumner (PoliPoint Press, 2010) is one of the most delightful books that I have read. It doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. For example, it has nothing about the use of natural selection in evolutionary computation. Furthermore, his application of evolution to everything is mostly metaphorical. But it is interesting, and gave me several new insights. Consider these examples.

Evolution depends upon and produces biodiversity. But humans, particularly conservatives, tend to devalue biodiversity. Sumner quotes Ronald Reagan, who said during the 1966 California governor’s race, “I mean, if you’ve looked at a hundred thousand acres of so of trees—you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” He then makes the point that businesses depend on diversity of products and stores just as natural selection depends on genetic variation.

Sumner also drew an analogy between evolutionary mass extinctions and market perturbations. Extinctions, in evolutionary time, are opportunities for species, especially small ones that grow quickly. Similarly, most new companies start during financial turmoil. “Post-extinction-event worlds are worlds for small animals. Post-economic-disaster worlds are worlds of opportunity for small businesses.” Massive corporations have many vulnerabilities; “TBTF” simply means that we are scared to let them fail.

Sumner also writes about altruism, and explains that from the Founding Fathers until the end of the nineteenth century, the American government embraced altruism by controlling banking and supported infrastructure, things that free-market conservatives today reject. “More than one voice would be quick to declare these ideas (the ideas of Washington, Hamilton, and Lincoln) to be socialist. Even un-American.”

Sumner had something to say about creationism, too. Only 40 percent of Americans accept continental drift, although it is measurable. This would seem to be a shocking statistic regarding American ignorance. But perhaps it is not ignorance so much as it is racism, which makes it even more shocking. Sumner says this result came from the way the question was worded. The survey asked, Were America and Africa once part of the same continent? Most of the “no” answers came from the South; and this, as Sumner points out, is where fewer than half believe that Obama was born in America. Other interpretations are possible, but Sumner’s interpretation certainly caught my attention.

Much of Sumner’s book is about the history of evolutionary thought, things that most of us already know. But it is so delightfully written that it was a pleasure to read things I already knew. For example, this is what he had to say about Darwin: “Although others had previously floated proposals about the mechanism by which evolution operated, Darwin’s hypothesis was meticulously researched, brilliantly argued, eloquently written, and vigorously defended. A hundred and fifty years of effort by the world’s most motivated detractors has done nothing more than prove that Darwin’s ideas were even better than he knew. Darwin is remembered because Darwin was right.”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Science and Religion Discussion at an AAAS Divisional Meeting

The 2012 meeting of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Section (SWARM) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the University of Tulsa has just finished. There were altogether about 500 registrants, although each session had few attendees. I was happy to participate in many aspects of this meeting, as symposium organizer (Endangered Species of Oklahoma), symposium participant (Science and Religion), and judge. The meeting was a success due to the tremendous amount of effort shown by the SWARM Executive Director David Nash, University of Tulsa Graduate Dean Janet Haggerty, Graduate School Coordinator Hope Geiger, and David’s sister Heidi who helps every year with registration. Their dedication was outstanding.

A summary of the Science and Religion session has been posted on the AAAS website by AAAS staff writer Ed Lempinen. (In the photos, you can see that I dressed as Charles Darwin, something I have done many times before). Ed’s lengthy and fair summary is very good and I will not repeat any of it. It accurately reflected the intention of the organizer, biologist Aaron Place of Northwestern Oklahoma State University, to find common ground of dialogue between science and religion. The general consensus that seemed to be reached by the end of the symposium, as I see it, is that both science and religion are about asking questions and seeking answers. Neither science nor religion should accept fiat statements of authority as final or even as evidence. For example, it would be unscientific for me to say, “Evolution occurs because Darwin said so,” or “God told Darwin that everyone needs to believe in evolution.”

This was not the case, however, with Dominic Halsmer, the Dean of Science and Engineering at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Whenever a science-religion session is organized, one expects a diversity of viewpoints. Nobody should have been surprised that Halsmer presented an Intelligent Design viewpoint. This would have been inappropriate for a scientific session, but was only to be expected for this one. However, I believe that Halsmer went far, far beyond the scope of the symposium when he spent considerable time declaring to us, as incontrovertible fact, that God told Oral Roberts to build a university. This is a cult viewpoint and should not have been a part of any science-related symposium. This is as inappropriate as a Mormon scientist (there are many good ones) proclaiming at a scientific meeting that Joseph Smith saw God or a Heaven’s Gate proponent claiming at a scientific meeting that the Hale-Bopp comet had come to take them to heaven. It is Halsmer’s cult preaching, rather than his intelligent design, to which I object.

In all fairness, neither the organizer Aaron Place nor the SWARM Executive Director David Nash, with whom Place consulted before accepting Halsmer’s participation, had any idea that Halsmer would inject this cult teaching into his presentation. Halsmer made no such statement in his abstract. It is for this reason that I am going to make the following proposal to scientific organizations with which I am involved (AAAS-SWARM, Oklahoma Academy of Sciences, etc.).

Guidelines for presenters: All participants, including those from religious institutions, should understand that (1) their scientific papers should not include religious assertions, and that (2) any papers submitted for religion-science sessions should not include any cult assertions, that is, assertions not generally shared among religious believers. The meeting organizers shall be empowered to decide whether this guideline has been infringed.

I believe this is both fair and necessary for presenters at scientific meetings to be apprised of this guideline in advance. Many meetings of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences include papers presented by students from Oral Roberts University, and they stick to the science. We do not want to discourage this sort of participation from students or faculty of Oral Roberts. But we cannot extend the recognition of the scientific community to cult preaching by allowing it to occur at meetings sponsored by scientific societies. Such a guideline would have made it clear in advance that Halsmer should have made no such statement, and would have been the basis of a formal complaint to his sponsoring institution.

A couple of days after the symposium, a bill promoting the teaching of alternatives to evolution and global warming failed to emerge from the Education Committee of the Oklahoma State Senate. This bill clearly had the objective of injecting fundamentalist doctrine into science classrooms. The next day, however, the wording of the bill came back to life as an amendment stuck to an unrelated bill. It is clear that state lawmakers are on a crusade to claim scientific validity for any and all of their religious and political viewpoints. You can read all about the ongoing events at the website for Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. This is the background against which the SWARM meetings were occurring this week.

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