12 Nov

In Celebration of Eccentrics

Bell Curve

If you take the human population and plot any of its characteristics (height, IQ, etc.), you will find that the curve takes the shape of a bell.  Most of the people fall near the center.  As you move away from the center, the population falls off rapidly.  Farther you go from the center, the drop off flattens out.

For some reason that we don’t understand, bell curves are there everywhere.  It is so common that it is often called the “Normal Distribution”! Distribution of Human Height

The curve above shows the actual distribution of height of Americans.  The normal height for women is about 162cm and the normal height for men is about 178cm.  There are very few women who are taller than 188cm and there are very few men who are taller than 203cm.  Women tend to stick closer to the normal than men (sharper bump) and men seem to have much wider variety than women (flatter bump).  There is similar variation between men and women when it comes to IQ distribution as well. You can say that the people who are farther away from the normal have eccentrics.  For example, men who are shorter than 160cm or taller than 195cm have eccentric heights.  Similarly, women who are shorter than 145cm or taller than 177cm have eccentric heights.

To summarize it, people whose traits are clumped around the center are normal.  People who are farthest from the center are eccentric.  It is easy to understand the simple concept when it comes to measurable quantity like height or IQ.  What is interesting is that this distribution is applicable for other traits qualities as well.

Put it in other words,

  • Normal are the people whose traits are most common in a population.
  • Eccentrics are the people whose have rare traits.

A trait becomes more common in a population usually if it had an evolutionary advantage in the past.  But it is not always true.  For example, we could have lived just as happily with four or six fingers.  There is no special evolutionary advantage of having five fingers.  

Also, just because an evolutionary adaptation had been helpful in the past (and hence, it is normal in the population today) doesn’t mean that we can’t live without it today.  An example is the hair on the head.  Except that it is usually thought of as an indicator of youth, that too a weak indicator, hair on the head has no survival or mate selection advantage.  If the entire human population becomes bald overnight, no one other than the hair dressers will find their life threatened!

Interestingly, there are traits that were disadvantageous in the evolutionary past, but are considered an advantage today.  For example, Thom Hartman suggested that people with ADHD behave as if they are hunters in a farming society (this hypothesis is turning out to be more true than he imagined).  He argues that farmers produce such strong societies that every time in the past when a farming society confronted a hunting society, the farmers was completely vanquished the hunters.  However, within a farming society, people with hunter traits ‘can’ perform much better than typical farmers.

Normal is not always superior.  Normal is just that: Normal.  The most common.  Eccentrics are not always inferior.  Eccentrics are just rare.

Normal is made by mixing a little bit of each color.  It results in a dull gray. Eccentrics, on the other hand, is all of few shades and none of the rest.  Eccentrics are like a riot of colors.  A celebration of colours, if you will.  Very rarely does an eccentric come across another eccentric of matching or complimentary color.

But then again, we are all eccentric.  Some of us show it on the surface and the rest of us manage to bury our colors deep down inside in order to match colors with rest of the colorless people who have learnt to bury their own colors just as deep.  We have standardized ourselves to the least common denominator!

That is sad.

This blog will be an exercise for you to discover your true colors so that you can flaunt them proudly.  This blog will also be an exercise in learning to appreciate the colors that others display.  More importantly, this blog will an exercise to learn to live your life without muting your real self or without demanding similar harsh sacrifice from others.

From your side, you just need to make sure that you bring two things to the table: An open mind and eccentric level of IQ that falls on the right side of the normal.

Riot of Colors

Happy festival of lights!

09 Nov

Little Bit of Madness

Starry Night, showing van Gogh's madness

4 out of 5 writers are known to have incidence of bipolar disorder in their family.  1 in 2 entrepreneurs are known to have ADHD spectrum disorder.  People are known to get powerful religious visions after epileptic seizures.

What is going on here?  Why haven’t these conditions go away from human gene pool, even though they usually are detrimental to the carrier’s ability to reproduce?

Consider gayness.  Gay people don’t get a chance to pass their genes.  Gayness is an evolutionary dead end.  Then, why does gay genes still exist in the population?  Some people think that androgynous people are selected more often.  Nature, in its efforts to produce androgynous people, ends up over-doing by producing gay people.

Likewise, little bit of madness offers an evolutionary advantage, which more than compensates for the debilitations.  Nature, in it ability to produce slightly eccentric people (who are typically more successful) ends up overdoing at times.

Interestingly, how much madness is good for you is decided by how well you are able to handle your condition, if you are able to extract an advantage from it, if you are able to nullify the damages, etc.

If you are one of the people who have a beautiful mind, don’t try to be normal.  Before you do that, please think (a) what unique advantages does your eccentricity bring you and (b) how you can counter/manage its debilitations.

If you ace these two requirements, the world will praise you for your uniqueness.  Not call you mad!

At the top of this post, I’ve clip a Vincent van Gogh’s painting called ‘Starry Night’.  This work, the way he draws the stars in it, is considered to bear evidences to his epileptic seizures.
06 Nov

Importance of Human Sexuality

Human Sexuality

We can’t understand human beings without understanding human sexuality.  Recently, I had a post that discussed the orgasmic potential in women.  It was well received by people I happen to know in real life.  Whereas, for the first time, I had people unsubscribing to the blog updates!  I thought I should explain why I keep straying into human sexuality every now and then.

Under the category Mental Mess, I am posting on stuff that will help us get better clarity on things around us.  Because we are social animals, large chunk of these posts are going to be on understanding the human nature.

In other words, I believe that our biology largely determines our behavior.  I also believe that most of our biology is a product of evolution.  So, I rely on social biology to help me understand the human nature and behavior.

Long before Darwin, farmers were crossing-breeding domestic animals and (not ‘with’) plants to modify/improve the stock.  Darwin realized that this process of selective breeding happened in the wild too.  He called this process the Natural Selection (in order to benchmark it against the ‘artificial selection’ which people were already familiar).

Sometimes, natural selection acts on mate selection alone.  One such example is peacock’s tail feathers (or a diamond studded Rolex).  It has no utility other than advertising to a potential mate the fitness levels of the peacock (or, the affluence of the guy who is wearing the watch).  This type of selection is called the Sexual Selection.  It is a sub-set of natural selection.

Group Selection is another sub-set of natural selection.  It happens when one collection of individuals evolves a trait that is beneficial to the group, even though it may not be beneficial to the individual.  Our sense of spirituality is thought of as a product of group selection.

Natural selection and all its subsets all run on one type of fuel: The Selfish Gene.

Huge, HUGE, part of our nature and behavior is determined by the forces of Sexual Selection.  Till about a couple of decades ago, we completely under-estimated the impact of the forces of sexual selection on human nature.  Also, since many forces of sexual selection act only during the reproductive age, its effects are often thought of as vain by people who are outside the reproductive mind set (too young, too old, celibates, religions, etc.).

Because of the immense prudishness that surrounds human sexuality, we hesitate to look into this subject or talk about it.  As a consequence of all this confusion, general public knows next to nothing about how sexual selection makes up who we are.  Because we don’t understand sexual selection, we keep berating human behavior that is perfectly healthy or encouraging behavior that is totally unhealthy.

There is no way we are going to truly understand the human behavior without understanding how the forces of sexual selection act on us.  I believe that understanding our very nature is essential to help us redesign our society, our values, our morals, etc.  And to live happily ever after.

05 Nov

God, Evolution and Internal Compass

Internal Compass

Whenever a belief or an attitude is shared by all (or most) of humanity, it must have offered us a significant survival advantage in our evolutionary past.  After all, people without this belief/attitude were wiped off from the gene pool!

In an earlier post, I discussed about how our sense of spirituality is suspected to be an evolutionary by-product.  Scientists working on evolution suspect that our compulsion to subscribe to concepts like God and Life-Purpose might have similar evolutionary origins.

Take, for example, an animal which sees a movement in the bush.  The animal must quickly decide if it is a fake alarm (say, rustling of the wind) or a predator.  An animal which mistakes a predator for rustling of the wind will get eaten up.  Whereas, an animal which wrongly concludes the rustling of the wind to be a predator lives to see another day.  Over a period of time, the “better safe than sorry” animals, the ones who see an agent in the rustling of the wind, dominates the gene pool.

This compulsion to err on the safe side has endowed all of us with a bias.  Because of this bias, we (and all other animals) often see an agent/pattern in most random noises.  Social biology thinks that we may have invented God and Life-Purpose because we have this compulsion to imagine an invisible hand in everything.

Of course, this doesn’t disprove the existence of God.  But it certainly puts a strong argument that our internal compass might be always stuck towards the North.

02 Nov

What can OkCupid tell us about Women

In the very first post, I discussed how internet is becoming a very rich source for researchers on human behavior.  One such source is a online dating website called OkCupid.

OkCupid has a nice blog, where they keep publishing interesting pieces of researches, based on gargantuan sample size.  Compared to their studies, the regular University researches look laughably puny and homogeneous.

These are some of my favorite findings: Agewise orgasmic potential of women

Almost half the young women have difficulty reaching an orgasm.  While OkCupid doesn’t get into why, experts on the subject claim that young women have difficulty only with vaginal orgasm and that clitoral orgasm is easy.  Interestingly, women reach their peak orgasmic potential in their mid forties (no wonder that women in their forties enjoy sex much more than the younger women; they also have much more self-confidence).  But if the women exercises, she typically reaches her orgasmic peak potential by late thirties and sustains it for fifteen more years!  So, for a woman in her forties, exercising is a huge, huge advantage.  If there is a forty-something woman in your life, you know what you should gift her for the new year.  A gym membership, of course!

Curvy vs Skinny Women: Drive and Self Confidence

But be careful about the dangers of overdoing the exercise bit.  She needs exercises only to keep her physically active.  Not to make her skinny.  Because, curvy women have biggest sex drive and self confidence.  Whereas, skinny ones fare the worst.  All other body types fall somewhere in between.

By the way, I happen to intimately know one curvy woman, who has just entered her forties and exercises regularly.  I wonder what should I get her this new years! In the meanwhile, you can read the original article here.

Both men and women lie

In America, both men and women lie (I see no reason why it should be any different in other countries).  Men lie a little bit more than women, at least when it comes to talking about their income.  As they age, people become more comfortable with lying.

Male income and response received

May be men lie more about their salaries because women are the officially certified gold diggers.  If the guy earns about $100k, the woman is for him to lose!  Of course, if you go to the original post, you can see color charts.

Straight vs Gay Women

This is just my gut feeling, looking from the chart above, gay women seem to be living a full live, whereas straight women seem to be shackled by the culture (original article).    I can’t help wondering, while looking at this chart, if women will be much, much more sexually active and adventurous if our religious and cultural shackles are dismantled.

Now, here is some information you can actually use: If you want to take an attractive self-portrait, try around 4am or 4pm.  Around 9am or 9pm, you are likely to make the worst pictures (original article).  Why?  God knows!

When to take attractive self-portraits

29 Oct

Sexual Ornament

Sexual Ornament

We didn’t grow a large brain to help ourselves find better food, fend from predators or to change the very landscape of the planet, like we are doing today.  We evolved a large brain hundreds of thousands of years before we did all that.

In his book Descent of Man, Charles Darwin discusses two types of evolutionary pressures:  Natural Selection and Sexual Selection.  Natural selection arises from the struggle to survive (fangs and hooves).  Sexual selection (antlers and peacock tail feathers) arises from pressure to reproduce.  There are two types of sexual selection.  One is challenge between the same sex to outwit one another (intrasex).  Other is a challenge to charm and attract the opposite sex more successfully (intersex).

A feature that evolved due to intersex sexual pressure is called a sexual ornament.  It is usually un-fakeable.  For example, only a healthy antelope can afford huge antlers.  Similarly, only a healthy peacock can afford a long and lustrous tail feathers.  To start with, an animal needs plenty of nutrition (i.e. physical fitness) to build and maintain a sexual ornament in top condition.  Sexual ornaments also adds more handicap, often in the form of burden over animal’s ability to move around freely.

For the huge cost that an animal suffers, sexual ornaments usually have zero utility value.  They don’t help the animal to fend a predator, catch/gather food, shelter from nature or increase the longevity.  If at all, sexual ornaments increases the animal’s chances of dying an early death!  If you think for a moment, there is a common theme for all sexual ornaments: Only I can afford the wastage!

In his wonderful book The Mating Mind, psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts forward a hypothesis that the brain developed as a sexual ornament.  During the initial days, Miller proposes, women selected men for men’s ability to excite and entertain the women.  Over time, pressurized by choosy women, men ended up developing larger and larger brain.  Of course, women were not left behind either.  They needed to evolve an equally intelligent brain to appreciate what men produced.

These are some of the implications of Miller’s ‘ornament brain’:

  • In a romantic situation, wastage (and luxury) is essential.  Waste is what keeps a fitness indicator honest!  A act or gift of high romance usually carries huge cost on the giver, but zero utility value to the receiver (e.g. diamond, flower, poetry, etc.)
  • Brain evolved as an entertainment system; we eventually hijacked it for doing rocket science
  • All activities that put a high demand on the brain are perceived as sexy.  Examples are singers, sportsmen (excelling in sports is a matter of the brain; not just the brawn), actors, poets, etc.  Of course, if you work in Intel you might find nerdyness sexy too!
  • Men are major producers and women are major consumers
  • While men are usually busy searching for women who would appreciate their sexual ornament, women are busy sifting through all suitors.  It is wrong to think that women don’t actively participate in the mate selection process.
  • Monogamous species do not have to develop sexual ornamentation (in all monogamous species, both the sexes look identical).  Humans developed sexual ornamentation because they were (moderately) polygynous (at best, serially monogamous) by nature.
29 Oct

Honest Signal

Honest Signal

There is a term called “honest signalling” in evolutionary biology.  It is not a new insight, but it is going to form basis for some of the key discussions we are going to have in the future.

Peacock’s tail is a wonderful example of a honest signal.  The luxury of the tail fathers correlates well with the fitness level of the animal which carries it.  A peacock with lower fitness can’t fake a luxurious tail feathers.  So, peahens have come to use the fitness of the tail feathers as a primary mate selection criteria.

Gazelles are known to stot (quadruple jumping) in the presence of a predator.  By stotting, the gazelles  signal their fitness level to the predator (Hey, look, I am very fit.   No use chasing me.  Find someone else easy).  As a weaker animal can’t stot as well as a fitter animal, stotting turns out to be a honest signal.

In humans, wealth indicators are easily understandable honest signals.  A Rolls Royce car is a honest signal of one’s financial resources.  Or, a Nobel prize is a reliable indicator of one’s mental resources.  Great skin, shining nails or lustrous hair is a honest signal of someone’s physical fitness.  But with humans, there is one ‘not so obvious’ fitness indicator: The Brain!

While a Nobel prize might be a reliable indicator of one’s cognitive resources (but then again, several Nobel prize winners had notoriously troubled family lives), brain itself is thought of as a honest signals of an individual’s genetic fitness.  In a wonderful book Mating Mind (which has cart load of politically incorrect assertions), Geoffrey Miller claims that the large humans brain evolved as a honest signals of genetic fitness.

No other animal has evolved large brain because large brain is a pain.  Consider these:

  • Large brain is simply redundant for eking out a life on this planet.  After all, none of the other animals have bothered to evolve a large brain.
  • Our brain is metabolically very expensive.  We end up spending about one fifth of our energy budget on the upkeep of the brain.
  • Large brain makes child birth a very risky venture for both the mother and the child.
  • Large brain made it difficult and awkward for us to move quickly like most of our primate cousins could.

A large brain has loaded us with plenty of disadvantages.  There must have been some compelling evolutionary advantage that the large brain brought us.  Otherwise, evolution would have weeded it out.

If we think that the intelligence of a large brain gave us any survival advantage, you may  be wrong.  After all, till the advent of agriculture, our life was hardly any different from that of any other animal on the planet.  We were not even the top predators on earth, even though we evolved our large brains some 200,000 years ago!  Why did we go through so much of trouble and evolve such large brain if it didn’t afford us any survival advantage?

Geoffrey Miller argues that a large brain evolved as a honest signal of the genetic fitness of the individual who carries it.  So, we have probably come to regard all ‘products of mind’ highly.

This has several interesting implications.  We will address them tomorrow.

26 Oct

Selfish Gene vs Altruistic Human

Altruistic Animal

There is a human gene called DRD4.  A mutation in the DRD4 gene can give ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper Activity) to the people who have the mutation.  People who have ADHD have difficulty with controlling their impulse.  Many of them marry young, have early pregnancy, have many kids, etc.  In all, there is every reason to expect the DRD4 mutation (and ADHD) is going to increase in the human population.

ADHD, of course, can pre-dispose a person to several setbacks.  Learning difficulty is the most well known affliction of ADHD.  People with ADHD are more vulnerable to addictive behavior, temper outbursts, poor job performance, etc.  About 65% of the inmates in Western prisons suffer from ADHD spectrum disorders.

DRD4 is clearly behaving in a way that is detrimental to the carrier animals.  But the same behavior is helping the gene to maximize the number of its own copies in the population.

Genes behave in a way that increases the number of its copies.  Over time, any gene that doesn’t doesn’t toe the line gets ‘subsumed’ by other aggressive genes. Because our language lacks adequate words to describe such behavior, we talk as if the genes are people (anthropomorphic thinking) and claim that the gene is behaving selfishly and we call such a gene a selfish gene.  Obviously, the gene is not people and it doesn’t think or act.  More importantly, genes don’t have any objective or motive.  They are mindless.

While the genes always act in a purest self-serving way (or they perish), sometimes their behavior is counter intuitive.  Altruism is one such paradox.  An altruistic animal seem to be an evolutionary dead end.  But among pack/herd animals, taking care of one another had increased the chances of all the animals in the pace/herd.  Over time, only the animals with altruistic genes were alive and the rest perished.  While altruism appears self-less, it is in reality promoted by a gene acting in pure selfish fashion.

But when an animal feels altruistic, the feeling of altruism is very real.  Even though the altruism is a product of a selfish gene, that is a mere technicality.  It is like saying “oxytocin release in your brain makes a mother bond with her child”.  Of course it is true.  But the technicality doesn’t make the mother-child bonding any less real.

We often confuse the selfish motives of our genes with the motives an the animal.  We shouldn’t.  We are not our genes.  We are not more.  We are not less either.  We are different.

24 Oct

Spirituality for an agnostic

Spirituality

Spirituality is one of the most misused words out there.  The word ‘spirituality’ is like a closet in a teenager’s room: Anything goes in there, but nothing ever comes out.  For example, according to Wikipedia, the term spirituality can be used when dealing with any of the following:

  • Immaterial reality
  • Inner path leading to essence of a person
  • Deepest value and meaning by which people live
  • A person’s inner life
  • Larger reality
  • A more comprehensive self
  • Joining with other human beings
  • Joining with nature, cosmos and/or define
  • Source of inspiration/orientation for life
  • Going beyond the worldly experience

You can stretch spirituality to fit it on everything or nothing.  You and me can be talking about spirituality, but we may be talking two very different things.  I think the confusions is caused by the limitation of the English language.  Sanskrit, on the other hand, has much more specific terms for each of the above.  It is unfortunate that we are letting this knowledge die.  But we are digressing.

Regardless of what anyone means about spirituality, whenever they use this word, I think they are talking about something bigger than themselves of which they are a sub-set.  The super-set may be a group of people, a set of social rules, some guiding principal, nature, cosmos, divine, etc.

This 18 minute long TED video talks eloquently about the evolutionary basis of spirituality.  As the speaker Jonathan Heidt points out, at times we all experience a powerful dissolution of the self and a sense of merging with something much bigger than us.  When we encounter one of these perception warps, it is usually a life changing (or life ending) experience.  We call these transcendental experience a spiritual experience.

Only hitch with spiritual feelings is this: The purpose of these powerful emotions lie deep in our evolutionary past.  In the past, the humans who put their community above the self survived and the ones who put self above community perished.  So, all of us today happily merge into something bigger.  Since the reason for this transcendental and powerful feelings are not obvious, we tend to attribute all kind of reasons to explain them, ranging from merging with a soul mate to merging with the God.

For an agnostic like me, spirituality is the “anything related to my super-set“.  Simple.  It works regardless of whichever context I see that word coming up in.

23 Oct

Sabre Dance of Sexuality

Sabre Dance

Close your eyes.  Imagine a melody in your head.  A new melody, something that you haven’t heard before.  Did you?  If you are like me, you probably came up with something trivial or nothing at all.  Now, click on this link and watch Vanessa Mae play Sabre Dance.

The difference between the simplistic music that we came up with and the glorious Sabre Dance is “human ingenuity”.  You and me are untrained and we probably never thought about creating music.  If you worked that violin for twenty years, under the supervision of an able teacher and pushed yourself to your limits, then Sabre Dance won’t be so unimaginably distant for you.  Now, answer this question with utter honesty:

What would be the Sabre Dance of your sexuality?  Can you even imagine it?

If you were like me, you probably can’t imagine what the Sabre Dance of your sexuality would look like.  But can you at least imagine that the expression of your sexuality today is trivial compared to what is possible when you apply your ingenuity?

The ‘zero-risk’ sexual policy that we have for thousands of years has kept our sexuality from progressing the way human ingenuity progressed in every other spheres of life.  In this area of life, we are all still amateur violin players, struggling without guidance, working on our skills in a haphazard manners.  But we wrongly assume that we play at virtuoso levels.

It is as if we think that the best musical performance is done in our bathrooms when we sing.  Whereas, the possibility of Sabre Dances of human sexuality never crosses our mind.