Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World

I've been reading this new book by Nichola Raihani at a very leisurely pace and finally finished it. Raihani's background is in evolutionary biology and psychology, which is somewhat broader than that of most similar authors. I found it informative with respect to the latest research in these areas, but was a little surprised to see how the disciplines have changed in recent years. For example, the term "symbiosis," which I grew up with, is obsolete, as is the name "E.O. Wilson." On the other hand, Raihani is a great fan of Charles Darwin, and I give her extra credit for that. One of the main things that I like about the book is that it provides an unvarnished account of how life evolves – so clearly that it becomes obvious how tenuous it is that we even exist.

The early chapters describe pre-human evolution, such as the introduction of mitochondria, a type of bacteria, into other living cells. Mitochondria were once independent organisms, and they became part of eukaryotes, initiating the evolution of multicellular organisms. This is the kind of happenstance that characterizes evolution and results in significant evolutionary changes. In this instance, mitochondria became the energy source that made higher forms of life possible. There is also much discussion of our distant ancestors and how they differed from other primates. It has been inferred that serial monogamy has been common throughout human history, based in part on the fact that human testicles are an intermediate size between those of gorillas and chimpanzees. Gorilla males have small testes because they have captive females and don't need much semen to reproduce, whereas chimpanzee males mate frequently with multiple females in order to reproduce and accordingly have large testes. Comparatively, human males must have mated with fewer females than chimpanzees but did not have captive females at their disposal in the manner of gorillas.

Until very recently it was thought that humans were born immature because of their head sizes, but it is now believed that metabolic stress on the mother is the actual cause: there is a limit to the size of a baby that can be sustained by the mother. Another interesting idea, which occurred to me earlier, is that the attachment theory of child-rearing is not supported by existing evidence. According to two studies, children who were raised by their mothers were no better adjusted than children who spent more time away from home, when examined later. This makes sense, because alloparenting was the norm throughout human history, and the current arrangement with nuclear families is an aberration.

The bulk of the book describes the role of cooperation in evolution and specifically in the case of humans. Cooperation has always been linked to species survival, but not necessarily in the same manner as in humans. Other primates do not engage in much cooperation, which makes humans more like meerkats or ants in some respects. Some fish resemble humans in the limited sense that their behavior is monitored by other fish, and they can develop reputations; in that case, the level of cognition is extremely low and does not imply true socialization. As in other books that I've read, there is discussion of how humans became cooperative on the basis of food shortages on the savannahs of Africa. Chimpanzees and gorillas did not live on savannahs, had plentiful food supplies, and therefore did not develop cooperative behavior. Hunter-gatherers were generally egalitarian as social units, and this changed when farming became the primary source of food. Farming led to increased populations in static locations and encouraged the development of social hierarchies, which permitted some individuals to engage in selfish behavior that increased their reproductive success.

For the present era, Raihani discusses how selfishness has made a comeback. She notes that selfishness has been the most dominant form in nature, and that cooperation exists only in small pockets. In the current environment, there are many incentives to cheat other individuals and to dismiss out-groups. To some extent, these preferences can be affected by socialization. For example, perhaps due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, northern Italians are more inclined to cooperate with wide groups to which they have little exposure than southern Italians, who tend to be more clannish and disregard higher authorities. This has been demonstrated in a study in which it is seen that people are more likely to return found wallets in the north than in the south. In the U.S., conservatives are typically unwilling to expend resources helping groups other than their own, thus their preference for low taxes. Raihani notes that cooperation does have costs, and that in many circumstances it is not irrational to engage in selfish behavior. Finally, in the current era, with climate change accelerating, she emphasizes how functioning states build cohesion in which a collectivist mindset permits the development of solutions to otherwise insurmountable problems.

I appreciate Raihani's straightforward description of our situation, in which she does not resort to using ridiculous phrases such as "the better angels." Human behavior has always been about survival, and trying to pretty it up isn't going to solve any problems. I think that she is somewhat better prepared to discuss these issues than others because of her knowledge of evolution and psychology. She also has some familiarity with economics. However, with the problems now facing mankind, it would also be helpful to have some knowledge of political systems and AI. Although we are living in challenging times, we have the tools available to survive if we choose to use them.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

In Praise of Prairie

The elm tree is our highest mountain peak;
A five-foot drop a valley, so to speak.

A man's head is an eminence upon
A field of barley spread beneath the sun.

Horizons have no strangeness to the eye.
Our feet are sometimes level with the sky,

When we are walking on a treeless plain,
With ankles bruised from stubble of the grain.

The fields stretch out in long, unbroken rows.
We walk aware of what is far and close.

Here distance is familiar as a friend.
The feud we kept with space comes to an end.

—Theodore Roethke

Thursday, September 2, 2021


As in most summers, I haven't been reading much lately. I have mainly been skimming through poetry books, but in that process I don't find much that I like. I may come up with some more good poems, or I may not. I know exactly what I enjoy in a poem, and it only takes a moment to recognize that I won't like a poem when I look at it. More than other people, I prefer poems that contain ideas or feelings, and I am less interested in pure physical descriptions, historical references and wordplay. I currently have on order two new nonfiction books which are just being published, and I'll start on one of those shortly.

The coronavirus has reared its ugly head again, and I'm hoping that it will subside soon. Vermont is still doing very well in terms of vaccinations and cases, and there is a chance that we have already reached the peak of this wave. We had a slightly normal social life for a few months and are currently in semi-isolation mode again.

At this point I am extremely tired of the American news media and prefer to ignore it. I tried the Washington Post for a year, and although I did like one columnist, Jennifer Rubin, the overall experience was unsatisfactory and no better than what I had with the New York Times. For general news I now read the Guardian, and for investing news I read the Financial Times. I can no longer tolerate the Sunday talk shows, with their panels of pundits; their analysis is so superficial that they have nothing serious to offer. What irks me is that the American news media, in its quest for profit, has cut operations that once kept the public semi-informed, and it has instead beefed up its entertainment features in order to attract readers and viewers. The American mind was always pretty mushy, and now, with the suppression of critical thinking, the country is lurching from one fiasco to another. This might have been prevented if journalists had done their jobs, but there is still the problem of inadequate education. One need only look at the people who win major political positions to see that something is seriously wrong. There have been no good presidents since World War II, and the last was one of the worst in American history. No responsible journalist covering national politics, regardless of their political views, should be comfortable with the fact that Donald Trump won an election and stayed in office for four years. In theory, if they had performed professionally that would not have occurred. Some of the controls used in China could be useful in the U.S. The kind of free speech you most often see here is an expression of ignorance, and the country would do better without it. The atmosphere could improve markedly if millions of disgruntled Americans were forced to shut up. Though the internet carries some of the blame for this situation, it remains a crucial fact that journalists have been remiss for years; whatever standards of objectivity they ever had seem to have disappeared.

I've been engaged in very little stargazing this summer, largely because viewing conditions have been poor. This is mainly due to the fires on the West Coast. That smoke blows all the way across the country and prevents the sky here from clearing completely. Because the stock markets are still doing fairly well, investing has become part of my daily routine on weekdays. Since the beginning of 2020, my average monthly gains from investing have been three times as much as my monthly wages were before I retired. This isn't going to last forever, but for now it is easy money. It would have been more difficult to do this a few years ago, and it is facilitated by commission-free trades and better online tools.

William has been behaving differently. For some reason he hasn't been catching many rodents lately and is eating more cat food instead. Last spring he became extremely sick for a couple of days, possibly from eating a poisoned mouse, and he may have lost his appetite for them. It is also possible that the mouse population has fallen off, but that seems unlikely.

This summer has been wetter and cooler than usual. As in previous years, we have lots of tomatoes – four different kinds.  

I did decide to buy a shotgun and will be doing some target practice soon.