Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Is Altruism Good for the Economy?

One would think that there is money to be made in the business of altruism. In particular, corporations or local businesses that do things that help the community, so long as they do so in a visible manner, benefit from the goodwill of the community. People are more likely to open accounts at banks or buy items from stores that have a public image of being generous. There are many examples of businesses and corporations that have invested in, and reaped the benefits of, public goodwill. And the explosion of artificial intelligence has included an emphasis on likeability: those robot voices that answer the phones of corporations say “Your call is very important to us” rather than “Wait in line, sucker.” Sometimes the robot voices even tell you your approximate wait time. Someday soon they might be able to identify you by your phone number, consult the list of music you have purchased, and create a tailor-made sound track for your wait time. I will know this has happened if I start getting all-Dvořák sound tracks when I am put on hold.

Increasingly, however, I have noticed that corporations and businesses are doing just the opposite. In many cases, corporations will do things that demean and frustrate their customers even if it costs them money to do so. They frequently entrap their customers or clients into making little errors for which they can be penalized. We can all think of personal experiences in which this has happened to us or to someone we know. This seems to be puzzling, both from an economic and an evolutionary viewpoint. Why would they do something that is not only bad but also decreases their profits?

Probably because it does not decrease their profits. Corporations know that if they keep us frustrated, one of our responses will be to buy more stuff, from junk food to vacations, in an attempt to make ourselves happy or to help us forget our frustrations. Banks, for example, know that if they keep us frustrated, we will spend money on shallow pleasures and stay in debt to them, for which they can charge high interest rates. A client who has an optimistic plan for the future will find actual pleasure in trying to become debt-free. The banks want to keep us depressed so that we will not try. And corporations that sell us stuff want us to buy everything now, because the item or service might not be available later; to wait is to lose. In short, many large corporations want us to be dissatisfied, even desperate, servants rather than happy customers.

Manipulating the lives of customers is not what evolutionary scientists call an “evolutionary stable strategy.” That is, this way of doing things is “invasible”: a business or corporation that people liked would soon displace the ones that people do not like, all other things being equal. However, all other things are not equal. The corporations that invest heavily in entrapping and demeaning customers are so large that they dominate the market. To convince yourself of this, just try starting a friendly corporation. I genuinely hope you succeed. Good luck! And remember, my call is very important to you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Jeremy Rifkin: Saying Everything about Everything

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of dozens of books on almost every subject. He has a voluminous mind and can marshal hundreds of facts to illustrate his points. But he made so many points that, at least in some cases, he misunderstood his basic concepts. One of these concepts is entropy, and his misunderstandings filled a book called Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World, originally published in 1980, long before the widespread acceptance of global warming science.

The second law of thermodynamics states that with every physical or chemical transformation, the total amount of disorder increases. The amount of disorder can decrease within an open system, but only at the expense of greater disorder outside of the open system. The inside of a refrigerator can get cooler and more orderly, for example disorderly water molecules can freeze into orderly ice, but only at the expense of heat production by the coils.

Rifkin’s book has, I believe, a very vague thrust. He believed that all of our problems—and nearly every problem in the world shows up somewhere in the book—are the result of the second law of thermodynamics. Well, if this is the case, then it would seem hopeless for us to try to solve any of our problems; they would seem to be physically inevitable.

But there is something we can do about the second law. At the very least, we can stop helping it. As the joke goes, “Mistakes will happne, but…must you give them so much help?” Many of the things that political conservatives demand are things that facilitate the second law, and help to increase disorder. It almost seems like conservatives want to help the second law of thermodynamics, as if it needs any help. Things would be a lot better in the world if conservatives just didn’t try to make things more disorganized.

Probably the major example is that political conservatives want to let the second law of thermodynamics take care of guns. Over centuries, we have built a society in which law enforcement officials maintain public order, and disputes are resolved through courts. But many political conservatives want to create a world in which order is maintained and justice practiced by everyone having firearms. If the people in that church in Charleston had had guns, said one National Rifle Association official (not necessarily on behalf of the whole organization), they could have stopped the shooter by shooting him. One of the core beliefs of political conservatives is the Second Amendment, which defends the existence of “a well-regulated militia.” To the NRA and the politicians it has bought, however, instead of a well-regulated militia, we should have a trigger-happy group of white men with assault weapons ready to shoot first and ask questions later. As I have noted in an earlier entry, white police frequently shoot unarmed black men. But police are trained and conscientious. You need no training and no conscience to join a white “militia”.

This is one reason that Donald Trump has such an easy view of the world. Republicans in general, and Trump in particular, ride along with the flow of entropy. The world is becoming more disorderly, and they ride the wave of entropy as if it were a bronco. Things are getting messed up; Republicans whoop and holler as they mess things up even more. Meanwhile, during every Democratic administration, the president tries to clean up the mess, stop war and create peace, reduce the deficit, etc. But Democrats will never succeed, because Republicans are tapping into the juggernaut of entropy.

Rifkin was right that we can and should resist the second law of thermodynamics in the few local places and brief times that we can. But he also misunderstood the law. He applied it to the Earth, which is an open system. One of his statements was that not a single blade of grass can grow that will not reduce the ability of another blade of grass to grow in the future. This is not true. Entropy will eventually make the Earth die and disintegrate, but this will happen whether grass grows or not. Rifkin, like many other people, got entropy mixed up. But most of us who get it mixed up do not write books about it.

The net effect of reading Rifkin’s Entropy was to be left baffled, rather than feeling geared up to do something to help to diminish the problems of the world, if only mildly and briefly. Genius he may be, but this book (and others, such as Algeny) will not necessarily help you understand or cope with the world better.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Random World?

One of the most powerful components of the scientific method is to test hypotheses against a null hypothesis. Nearly everyone is capable of rational thought; but scientific thought is a discipline. Nearly everyone can reason from evidence to reach a conclusion; but in science, what we do is to contrast the evidence that we see for the hypothesis against the things that we would expect to see if the hypothesis is wrong. That is, against what we would expect to see at random.

And it is here that the scientific and the religious ways of thinking can perhaps most clearly be contrasted. For example, Herbert Benson and collaborators tested the hypothesis that God answers prayer. Actually, they tested the hypothesis that supplemental intercessory prayer would decrease the rate of relapsing back into heart disease.

In a scientific view of the world, you expect things to happen more or less randomly unless something is causing them to happen non-randomly. That is, absent some physical process, good and bad things will happen more or less equally. One of the things that this could mean in our everyday lives is that we should expect good and bad things to happen to us more or less randomly. As for the other humans with whom we interact every day, some are better and some are worse; and each person is a mixture of good and bad motivations. Therefore, in Benson’s study, one might expect patients suffering from heart disease to sometimes relapse and sometimes not. This does not necessarily mean that heart disease patients would relapse exactly 50 percent of the time; the actual rate will depend on the availability of good medical treatment as well as many other factors. But a scientific null hypothesis would state, in this case, that heart disease patients would relapse to the same extent whether they were being prayed for or not.

This is extremely different from the fundamentalist religious view. To a fundamentalist, the entire world is pervaded by evil, by the works of Satan, and that bad things will always happen all the time to everyone unless God specifically and miraculously prevents it. The fundamentalist null hypothesis is therefore 100 percent relapse.

Therefore, if you pray for someone to be healed from an injury or illness, and they recover, this constitutes evidence, or even proof, that God has intervened and blessed them miraculously, according to religious people.

Actually, there is no direct way to prove which null hypothesis—the approximately 50 percent relapse that scientists expect, or the 100 percent relapse that religious people expect—is correct. The only way to get around this problem is to have a control group. In Benson’s case, the experimental group of patients received intercessory prayer, and did not know it; and the control group of patients did not receive intercessory prayer, and did not know it. The percent relapse of the control group patients represents a measurement of the null hypothesis. It was in this manner that Benson and collaborators demonstrated that intercessory prayer had no measurable effect: one group had 52 percent relapse, the other had 51 percent, a statistically indistinguishable effect.

Fundamentalists have ignored this result and continue to insist that, unless you join their church and give them money, bad things will probably happen to you. God might allow them, or might prevent them. They insist that there is no such thing as God not doing anything; God either prevents bad things, or else bad things happen.

This is perhaps the most basic difference between a scientific and a fundamentalist view of the world: the scientific view that things happen at random unless they are caused, and the fundamentalist view that only bad things happen unless God prevents them. To a scientist, the world has a random background; to a fundamentalist, the world has a background permeated with evil.

Friday, October 7, 2016

What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Other Animals: More Insights from Konrad Lorenz

I have a few more observations that I learned while reading Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring.

Some animal species are even more cruel than humans. A male roebuck, if confined in the same enclosure as females or young, will kill them and slit their bellies open. And doves, the paragons of peace, or so we think, will (if confined) kill one another; the victor will pluck the feathers off of the vanquished. In many cases, the animal that knows that it is about to be vanquished will engage in submission behavior, in order to keep from being killed. A turkey, for example, will lie down when it knows it is losing a fight. But peacocks do not recognize turkey behavior; so when turkeys and peacocks are confined together, the peacock kills the turkey.

That is, doves can be very cruel. At the same time, wolves are often submissive to one another and refrain from outright combat and cruelty. Lorenz then asks, at the end of one of his essays written early in the Cold War era, will we be submissive like wolves or murderous like doves? The entire future of the world may depend on the answer to this question.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Just How Different Are Humans from Other Animals?

I want to quote some fine literature. Here is a description of a courtship scene from what sounds like Victorian gentlemen and eligible young ladies:

“Remarkable and exceedingly comical is the difference in eloquence between the eye-play of the wooing male and that of the courted female: the male…casts glowing glances straight into his loved one’s eyes, while she apparently turns her eyes in all directions other than that of her ardent suitor. In reality, of course, she is watching him all the time, and her quick glances of a fraction of a second are quite long enough to make her realize that all his antics are calculated to inspire her admiration; long enough to let ‘him’ know that ‘she’ knows. If she is genuinely not interested, and will not look at him at all, then the young…male gives up his vain efforts as quickly as…any other young fellow. To her swain, now proudly advancing in all his glory, the young…lady finally gives her assent…These movements of both partners symbolize a ritual mating invitation…Married…ladies greet their husbands in the same way…The purely sexual meaning in this ceremony…has been entirely lost and it now only serves to signify the affectionate submission of a wife to her husband…From the moment that the bride-to-be has submitted to her male, she becomes self-possessed and aggressive towards all the other members of the [group], for being, on the average, smaller and weaker than the male, she sands much lower in rank than he as long as she is single.

“The betrothed pair form a heart-felt mutual defence league, each of the partners supporting the other most loyally. This is essential, because they have to contend with the competition of older and higher standing couples…This militant love is fascinating to behold. Constantly in an attitude of maximum display, and hardly ever separated by more than a yard, the two make their way through life. They seem tremendously proud of each other, as they pace ponderously side by side…It is really touching to see how affectionate [they] are with each other. Every delicacy that the male finds is given to his bride…”

“And the most appealing part of their courtship is that their affection increases with the years instead of diminishing…even after many years, the male still [treats] his wife with the same solicitous care, and finds for her the same low tones of love, tremulous with inward emotion, that he whispered in the first spring of his betrothal…”

This beautiful passage is not from a Victorian romance, but from a 1952 essay in King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz, one of the most famous ethologists of the twentieth century. He was describing a kind of bird known as the jackdaw. They are similar to crows. Granted, Lorenz is indulging in a little anthropomorphism, but his descriptions are mostly factual and cannot be entirely imaginary. He was, after all, the greatest expert on animal behavior of his generation. He goes on to describe that the interactions of male and female birds involves behaviors and calls that are otherwise infantile—just as human lovers often call each other baby and use baby-talk with one another.

Lorenz was particularly impressed with the way the jackdaws keep up their affection for life. “You may not believe it, but there are other animals in whom—though they may live in life-long marital union—the situation is different: in whom the glowing fires of the first season of love become extinguished by cool habit; with whom the thrilling enchantment of courtship’s phrases entirely disappears as time goes on: and in whose further mutual association all activities of wedlock and family life are performed with the mechanical apathy common to other everyday practices.” He doesn’t say, but I wonder to which long-lived and supposedly monogamous animal species Lorenz may have been referring?

In the process of trying to convince ourselves that we are completely in the image of God, the lords of creation, and wild animals are not, we have had to impose a bias: that animals are stupid. Anyone who has extensively studied animals, especially birds and mammals, knows that they are very intelligent. This includes some highly religious people. But when they get to church they force their minds to believe that wild animals are so far below us that, although they do not deserve to suffer, neither do they deserve any particular dignity.

Everyone has heard about the striking humanness of the behavior of Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimps. But chimps are very similar to humans, while jackdaws are birds. According to a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, birds have small brains but these brains are densely packed with neurons, giving them more intelligence than the weight might suggest.

Chimps and bonobos have more “humane” behavior than most of us realize. This episode of a radio program gives a very fascinating and maybe disturbing example. It is about a chimpanzee named Lucy who was raised as a human and never really gave up that identity; and a bonobo named Kanzi who communicates, even with words, in some detail, and has a surprising comprehension of human emotions.

We can also go too far the other direction. I made a Darwin video in which I claimed that cats are not necessarily empathetic. When cats crawl up and purr, they might just be seeking comfort and using you as a mommy-substitute (especially when they start pumping your skin as if it was cat-breasts). Maybe they don’t really care whether you like it or not. Inevitably a few cat-lovers posted comments saying that they were absolutely certain that their cats were empathetic.

I’m not sure what the point is that I am trying to make, except that when we make religious assumptions, they can blind us to observing things that fall outside of those assumptions.