13 Jun

Darwin’s Triplets

Identical Triplets

All posts in "Life in a Color Wheel" series

In the earlier post titled Evolution 101, we saw how evolution works in the wild. It discussed about how a particular biological trait is selected in a population. Darwin called this “Natural Selection“. Eventually it turned out that Natural Selection is an umbrella term for three different types of selection forces:

  • Self Selection
  • Sexual Selection
  • Group Selection

The interplay of these forces makes us who we are. Like the inter-play of three primary colors make all the hues that we can see in the nature. It is as of we live a life in a color wheel.

Self Selection

Me-Selection

Some genetic traits help an animal to live longer. These are called “Self Selection” traits. Self Selection traits may not care about finding a mate, making babies or altruism. Have you heard of rats eating their pup when they are hungry? It is the rat’s self-selection trait in action.

Sexual Selection

Sexual-Selection

Some biological traits help an animal to secure better quality/quantity mates. These are called Sexual Selection traits. These traits may or may not care if an animal lives longer or if its community flourishes.

A good example of Sexual Selection trait is peacock’s tail feathers. Luxurious tail feathers in a peacock advertises that the animal is physically/genetically fit. Tail feathers don’t increase the survival of the peacock. If anything, the long tail only makes it difficult for the peacock to catch its prey or run/fly away from the predators. Tail feathers are also metabolically expensive to maintain. A lesser peacock can’t fake a nice, long and iridescent tail. So, peacock’s tail feather is what we call a honest signal.

If the peahen selects a mate  for its luxurious tail feather, the peahen can be sure that it selected a genetically superior male. The genetic trait in a peacock to grow a beautiful tail feather is a sexual selection trait. The genetic trait in a peahen to find such a tail feather beautiful is also a sexual selection trait. These traits do not help the animal to catch a prey or save the life of an amigo. Their only purpose is to help the animal to make more healthy babies.

 

Study of Sexual Selection forces is full of politically unacceptable conclusions. This area is not as well studied as it must be. Even the researchers who study Sexual Selection publish their findings with caution. Even very little published insights are not adequately communicated to the public.

Group Selection

Group-Selection

Group Selection is the least understood of the selection forces. Even its very existence is not yet widely accepted. But Group Selection gives such an elegant explanation to so many  strange human behavior that we will never understand who we really are without understanding what kind of effects the Group Selection forces have on us.

Group Selection is a funny thing. It works on making the genetic material from a particular group succeed over the genetic material of other groups. It doesn’t care about genetic material of an individual animal like the Me and Sexual Selections do. On the surface, Group Selection looks like a Group vs Group war. While that is true, Group Selection has a greater impact than that.

Group Selection pits the interest of a Group against the interest of the individuals who belongs in that group! Group Selection makes an individual to subjugate its own self-interest to the interest of the group. When the interest of an individual clashes with the interest of the group, the group often doesn’t hesitate to get ride of the individual!

When we think about group selection, we must remember one thing:

A part of 'the group that live in' lives inside each one of us.

At one level, each one of us is the group. We act in a way that subjugates the interest of other people to the common good of the group. We willingly sacrifice some of our own self interest in the alter of the common good. How much of self interest we sacrifice, or how much of similar sacrifice we demand from others, changes based on the situation we are in. Our sense of group identity and altruism are highly elastic.

War, where we the survival of the entire group is threatened, make us more altruistic than we usually are. In the middle of the battle field, men often put the lives of their comrades above their own. Contrary to this, when an individual is in a situation wherein its own self interest is not easily jeopardized by the dangers that the society faces, the individual tends to become less altruistic than it usually is.

Feeling the Selection Forces

In an individual, selection forces express themselves as emotions/feelings.

  • “Me Selection” may express itself as hunger, fear, cold, warmth, satiety, anger, etc.
  • Sexual Selection may express itself as pride, libido, competitiveness, creativity, etc.
  • But the way we feel the Group Selection is interesting. The sense of oneness you feel when you stand in front of God, well, that is the Group Selection forces you are feeling. When you feel the forces of Group Selection, you have a strong urge to merge and lose the sense of your self into the identify of the group.

Emotions of Group Selection are just as seductive, if not more, as the emotions of Me Selection or Sexual Selection. Though, we don’t readily recognize it. The interplay of the three selection forces determines who we are and how our societies are made. Interplay-of-Selection-Forces

Some of our traits are fostered by two or three different selection forces. For example, having a broad shoulder and good shoulder muscles in a human male helps him to be a good hunter (Me Selection) and also helps him to find more/better mates (Sexual Selection). Being a good hunter, while it caters to Me Selection forces, sharing the spoils with the group also caters to the Group Selection forces.

When a particular trait is exclusive to a single selection force, expression of that trait might be opposed by other forces. For example, human equivalent of peacock’s tail feather (sexual selection) is often considered as vanity and looked down upon by the society (group selection). Whereas, for a woman who is looking to select a mate, display of honest signal by a man is all that matters. Life-In-A-Color-Wheel

Our natural desires and urges are endless and shifting inter-play of the three selection forces that played a part in molding us. At any given point in time, your natural feelings are just a pixel on the beautiful color wheel. At times, you play on the periphery. And at times, you play right at the center. But usually, you are somewhere in between.

Life becomes simple and uncomplicated when you understand the color wheel of selection forces and then design your life around that understanding

  • What is your preferred color
  • Where do they come from
  • What is their significance
  • What is good about them
  • What is bad about them
  • Why has your color choice changed over time
  • What else are you giving up when you chose your color
  • Why is someone else angry about your color choice

Life in a color wheel might be the simplest answer to so many of your life’s dilemmas. In the future posts, let’s take a closer look at the inter-play of these hues.

I promise you, it will be nothing less than liberating.

All posts in "Life in a Color Wheel" series
23 May

Age of Creativity

Age Of Creativity

This 5 post series addresses as to how “we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation and in response, we are inventing a new idea age”.

  • Exponential Threats identifies the growing threats we are presently facing
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. To do that, unprecedented level of human ingenuity should come into play.
  • In Origin of Ideas, we discuss the source of human ingenuity, both inside an individual’s head and across the society.
  • In this post, Age of Creativity, we will see why we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In the last post, we address how you can prepare for the coming Idea Age

There are a bunch of reason for us to believe that we have entered a new age of creativity. Another renaissance. But in its scope, this one will be like no other. By the time it has run its course, humankind would have, I speculate, made a clean break with the past.

New Knowledge

Creativity is a process of combining existing ideas/knowledge in a new and useful way. The process of creativity can be thought of as forming new connections in a network of ideas. In a network, addition of a new node encourages sprouting new connections (image below).

Network with newNode

If we are considering idea generation at social level, then we can treat each human being as a node in our network. As we have seen in an earlier post, bigger human population creates more new nodes.

But if we ignore the physical containers of idea/knowledge/information, every new discovery or idea becomes another node in the fabric. When a new node is added to a network, it makes new pathways possible (image below).

New Node New Pathways

Birth of an node (idea) increases the number of existing connection (ideas), which in turn increase the possibilities of several more connections (ideas) germinating.

Note: If you have already noticed the fractal nature of ideas, you will find intuitively understand the recursive nature of the paragraph above.

Thus, the new ideas increase exponentially in quantity! Today, we are seeing important new ideas coming in every day, with each new idea begetting even more ideas. We are getting inundated with creative opportunities. Understand the idea-inundation is key to preparing for the age of creativity.

New ideas have another interesting effect. When we come across novelty, it increases the levels of a brain chemical called dopamine. Among other things, dopamine inside our brain increases the alertness and focus.

 

Note: Dopamine is also responsible for feel-good and libido. It also plays a major role in romance. Effect of dopamine is designed to wear off with repeated exposure. Translation: Less novelty, less dopamine.

Brains are built in such a way that we love to work with novel stuff. Novelty tickles our brain cells into working with them. With so many new things popping up all around us, we are all gradually becoming idea generating machines (the only way to work with a new information is to integrate it with the rest of our knowledge base, which is same as forming new connections to the novel idea).

New Tools

Vast majority of younger generation is familiar with tools for data analysis, visualization and (product) design. These tools are helping us to combine ideas much more easily, and with far less resources and time.

We also have massive interest-groups online, who come together to create, fine tune, implement and exploit new ideas. Idea generators get almost instantaneous quality feedback. Instantaneous feedback is the corner stone building expertise in any domain.

Global Size Melting Pot

Large Melting Pot

Today, we not only have more than 7 billion brains in the network, these brains are also inter-connected in a way that was unheard of even 25 years ago! While internet is the pipeline through which the connectivity happens, we have several internet-dependent devices that improve the quality and pay-off of the connections.

Social media is one such device that helps us extract more juice out of global connectivity. The world has now become a huge monkey-see-monkey-do society, with each of us learning from everyone else. Because we all show our best face in the social media, we are learning positive habits/attitude from each other in unprecedented speed. And by helping us to learn to express ourselves in small steps, social media is helping us all to become creative.

Other devices that help us make the world one huge melting pot are online communities, special interest groups (already discussed above), cheap access to markets, free online education, etc.

Attitude Shift

Honey Bees

We are not strangers to the win-win nature of idea sharing. However, we have had tremendous reservations in sharing ideas that brought power and money. But that has changed now.

Today, we have more opportunities than any one of us can handle alone. Besides, the speed of change is so rapid that there is not enough time for a single person to build sufficient expertise to exploit a domain. Consequently, we are beginning to more freely share all sorts of ideas. In a world where a product has a typical life cycle of 3 to 5 years, one lone individual trying to build an edifice out of a single idea over 20 years is often a recipe for disaster.

We are also going through another important attitude shift: We are rediscovering the pleasure of belonging to a community.

We are social animals. We seem to be biologically pre-disposed to deriving pleasure from sharing. We are taking the pleasure community to new levels by becoming pioneers of sharing. We already share things from cars to clothes to house. Sharing, or Collaboration Economy, is becoming the next big thing and a manna for the folks keen on sustainability.

Role of Current Economy

american-financial-crisis-comparison

With the global recession, the people in the West now have more time than they have money. The resource crunch is incentivising them to become more creative and democratizing the process of idea generation.

In the same time, masses of people in the developing countries across Asia and Africa are leaving poverty behind. These people now have some surplus time and money. They are beginning to explore things beyond basic survival. There is a good chance that this population, which has leapfrogged into knowledge world, will be more adapt in working with ideas than the earlier generations that came off the boat.

Threat to Survival

The last factor that democratizes the idea generation process is the pressure from the serious survival threats that our civilization is facing presently. Because of their exponential nature, the threats will hit us so fast that our existing creative infrastructure won’t be able to handle them. We will end up recruiting all creative faculties, every human brain that is ready to contribute.

In the next article in this series, we will see what we can do to prepare for the idea age.

22 May

Origin of Ideas

Origin of Ideas

This 5 post series will addresses as to how “we are facing exponential threats from resource crunch and environmental degradation and that in response, we are inventing a new idea age”.

  • Exponential Threats identifies the exponentially growing threats we are presently facing
  • In Exponential Technology, we argue that our exponentially growing technology, our best ally, is not sufficient to tackle these threats. To do that, unprecedented level of human ingenuity should come into play.
  • In this post Origin of Ideas, we discuss the source of human ingenuity, both inside an individual’s head and across the society.
  • In Age of Creativity, we address as to why we have reasons to believe that we are entering an era of unprecedented global creativity.
  • In the last post, we will address as to how you can prepare for the coming Idea Age

Before discussing how human creativity is likely to save the day, we must first understand the origin of ideas, either inside a human head, or across a society. After all, there are striking similarities between both types of idea generation.

Human Mutation and Population

First, a small detour. Faster Human Mutation A paper was published in 2007, showing how the rate of human mutation was picking up speed with time. The reason was discovered to be the rising human population! More humans meant more mutations. More mutations, of course, meant more variety and better chances of human race continuing to eke a living. According to Matt Ridley, as he argued in this TED talk, there is one other thing that becomes more common with increase in population: Ideas. Ridley argues that since people make ideas, where there are more people, we have more ideas generated. But ideas funny creatures. With ideas, 1+1 = 11. Value of an idea goes up multi fold when it is in the midst of other ideas. For example, take the idea of petroleum mining. When this idea is not combined with any other idea, it has zero value (imagine a guy digging out tarry goo, with no idea what to do with it). But when it is combined with other ideas like IC engines, automobiles, jet planes, plastics, war, pollution, etc., the idea of petroleum mining becomes a formidable! Idea Having Sex Each idea makes several others come alive. To better understand how ideas work, you can think of ideas having sex (an analogy introduced by Ridley in his TED talk). But since ideas combine in every which way possible, we should think of them as polyamorous, egalitarian, libidinous and indiscreet! Ideas Are Indiscreet But the value of an ideas is derived from its ability to combine with other ideas. Not from its ability to stand alone. According to Ridley, an environment that fosters mixing of ideas is much more productive and valuable than sheer IQ. For example, industrial towns like Tiruppur and Sivakasi pop up out of nowhere to become an island of superior performance only because these towns end up having a bunch of people thinking, eating and breathing closely related ideas. Interestingly, a reasonably large population is needed to sustain idea generation and specialization. And when it comes to playing the idea catalyst, no population is large enough. There is evidence from the past that China stopped advancing its science and technology when it cut itself out from rest of the world. Similarly, it is my personal belief that India fell short of exploiting its potential to innovate when it decided to cut itself off from the West (the chief idea generators at this point in the history) after obtaining its political independence from the British.

Creativity Inside your Head

Interestingly, creativity inside your head works in a very similar fashion: Generating a new idea inside your head is just a matter of combining two or more existing ideas in a novel way. To foster your own creativity, you will need rich knowledge base. The more ‘idea raw materials’ you work with, more appropriate will be the ideas generated by you.

Ideas

You get to work with more ‘idea raw materials’ when (a) you are knowledgeable and (b) you get to retain more of what you learn. Retention is partly genetic, partly due to repetition and partly due to physical health of the brain. Of course, we will have better understanding of memory as more research throws light on the subject.

Next  to memory, your ability to communicate between different models of your brain is important to combine ideas in a novel way. The physical health of your brain like blood circulation, health of the myelin sheaths insulating the axons, etc., determine how well you can combine ideas inside your brain and create new ones. If the circulation is poor (supplies of less energy) or the myelin sheaths are damaged (increased noise level during communication), all energy hungry neural operations like creation of new ideas get down regulated.

Sustained attention is a faculty that is known to play an important role in creation of new ideas. As if, the longer you hold an idea in the center stage of your head, the more opportunities you give it to finding a suitable  partners to hook up with.

Living and interacting with people who have a knack for creating new ideas certainly helps your own creativity. They teach you that it is alright to come up with new ideas and supply you with building blocks for generating new idea.

Most importantly, learning to suspend one’s critical factor is an important ingredient of personal creativity. People have a tendency of snuff out new ideas, even before the idea was given a decent chance.

Of course, intention/motivation is another huge factor in fostering personal creativity.

The last factor in personal creativity are external. Some people respond to external pressures (e.g. impending deadline) by becoming creative. In these people, pressure activates their norepinephrine, increases their mental alertness and actually makes them more creative. Another brain chemical that increases the mental alertness is dopamine. Dopamine levels in the brain increase when you are faced with a novel situation, when you are suitably rewarded or when in love (among other things). Typically, when you are in any of these situations, the level of your personal creativity go up.

Interestingly, we have entered an era that supplies ample quantity of several factors that we saw above. In the next installment of this series, we will see as to how creativity across the globe is in the process of reaching unprecedented levels.

REFERENCES:

- This post is a sequel to Part-1, Exponential Threats and Part 2, Exponential Technology
- All the posts in this series are based on the presentation Idea Age is Here
07 Aug

Talking eyes

Sclera

Have you ever met someone with his or her eyeball tattooed?  And if you have, have you ever tried to hold a conversation with them?  I am guessing you probably haven’t.  But you sure have held a conversation with someone wearing sunglasses.  If that conversation was with a person you don’t trust or you don’t know that person yet, do you remember the uncomfortable feeling you had?  The uncomfortable feeling comes because you can’t see that person’s sclera.

Sclera is the white of an eye.  Sclera of most animals have black or brown in color.  Also, in most animals, the iris is large and it occupies most of the eye socket.

With humans, our eyelids are horizontally elongated, increasing the opportunity for the eyeballs to become more visible.  Human eyeballs have lost all pigmentation so that they are clearly contrasted against the human skin.  The human iris comes in dark colors, clearly contrasting against the eyeball.  Our iris is smaller than the that of other animals, further increasing the visibility of the white of the eye.  All of this make it easy for humans to track each other’s eyes.  Even dogs have learnt to track human eyes (though, they can’t track the eyes of other dogs).

We have talking eyes.  Our sclera and iris are designed to talk and to be listened to.  Even infants can track eye movements.  They can track a care giver’s eye movement even before they can track their head movements!

Eye movement is very much a part of our body language repertoire.  For any body language to work, all of us must be using the body gestures the same way.  So, most of the body language gestures are common across our species.  In fact, many body languages are common across the species too.  That’s why we can clearly tell when a lion is angry.

Since the eye movement is part of our body language, we have a pre-defined vocabulary for our eye-talk.  Unfortunately, not much of it is well understood or documented.  Except for a bit of detective work done by NLP (watch this video).

Eye Accessing Cues

NLP has discovered when you try to recall a picture, your eyes move to ‘your’ left-top.  Or when you try to build a new image in your mind, your eyes move to your right-top.  Similarly, when you try to recall some sound you’ve heard, your eyes move to your left and when you are build up a sound, your eyes move to your right.  And when you are having an internal dialog, your eyes tend to move to your left-bottom.  When you get in touch with some tactile experience, your eyes tend to go to your right-bottom (more in this article).  So, when someone is describing about a fun conversation they had last night, and their eyes keep going to their right (and not left), then you know that the person is probably lying!

Our talking eyes are one more evidence that we have been mutually-cooperating social animals for millions of years.  If we had lived in a free-for-all, me-first, devious society, advertising your intent with talking eyes would be a bad thing to do.  If you can’t believe that next guy will do the right thing, you won’t advertise that your are looking at something interesting, like food or a potential mate.

Advertising your intent openly to everyone means (a) you believe that you will not be exploited and (b) your intent (to share the food, for example) will be returned when the time comes.  These two are social traits are deeply embedded in our genetic code and white sclara is just one such places where it shows.

It is in our nature to be social (see the previous post about our fundamentally social nature).  To say that humans need to be forced to cooperate, or that we should be bound by rules to act fair, or that we are selfish in nature, are all total hogwash.  Such claims are testament to lack of understanding of how we work down deep inside.

Down deep inside, we are cooperative social animals with a selfish me-first streak (more about this later).  We are neither this, nor that.  We are a fine balance between honey bees and leopards.  If that is not complicated enough, the point of equilibrium keeps shifting from time to time!

25 Dec

Seek Status. Be Happy.

Seek Status

If you are a corporate type, I am sure they have already bored you to death with Abraham Maslow’s human need pyramid.  Maslow proposed that human beings start addressing their needs from the bottom most layer.  Typically, after the bottom layer is addressed, they move to the layer above.  How-much-ever popular Maslow’s pyramid is, I can never figure out what self-actualization is!

Maslow's Pyramid

Fortunately, there is a delightfully alternative human-drive model that works for me.  Proposed by David Rock, the SCARF Model identifies five human needs that have huge impact on our decisions.  And it is not as if one of them is more important than the other.

SCARF Model

Maslow and all other teachers before him (including the religious teachers) completely missed the human hunger for status.  Almost every religion, without an exception, preach that status seeking is evil or trivial thing.  People readily die in order to retain their status.  In fact, almost every one is spending their whole life pursuing status.

With the help of modern science, animal studies and hard data, we now clearly know that having high status adds a few years to one’s life.  Not only that, we now know that the people/animals with lower status suffer much higher levels of stress and anxiety, making even their shorter life much less pleasant.

Status seeking is a selfish act, done to benefit the self and near-self.  Selfishness in itself is not a bad thing till such time it affects others in an unfair manner.  Unfortunately, status seeking is a win-lose game; for one person to win, other(s) must lose.  An individual’s status seeking threatens the status of (few) others in the group.  Sometimes, the entire group is threatened by an individual’s status seeking.  Groups almost always hate status seekers.

Religions are a product of group selection.  They almost always put the benefit of the group above that of the individual.  Religions always belittle an individual’s self-centered reward seeking behavior.  Ironically, religions smuggle an individual’s reward-seeking mechanism to serve the group.  If we look at it from this point of view, a religion is a parasite on its member, though a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the host might exist.

Interestingly, status seeking is driven by sexual selection.  Status seeking is usually an expression of the mate selection drive.  An individual’s status seeking drives roughly correlates with the level of androgens and other gonadal hormones in their body.  People are most status seeking in their sexual prime.  Kids and elderly, with their low gonadal hormone levels, more readily cooperate.  Men, with their higher androgen levels, are much more competitive than women.

Summary:

  1. Seek, and win, Status; it is good for your health and well being
  2. Your status-run will threaten your peers
  3. Institutions put their selfish motive above your individual welfare when they teach you not to seek status
  4. As you grow old, your status-seeking drive might diminish.  And, you might think that the status seekers are all foolish.

We’ll look at “Fairness” in the next post.

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.