Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Secret of Our Success

Joseph Henrich begins his preface to The Secret of Our Success by going over how his path through academia led him to write this book.  He started out getting dual bachelor degrees in anthropology and  aerospace engineering.  He worked as an engineer for a while before going back to school for his doctorate in anthropology.  Luckily the math from his engineering background came in useful when he got interested in evolution, population genetics, and how the tools from population genetics could be applied to cultural transmission.  I don't think this book could have been written by someone without such a broad background.

It's easy to do a bad job talking about how evolution has influenced human behavior.  It's easy to find people bloviating with evolutionary explanations about the ways men and women act differently in our society.  But clearly you won't come to any success if the supposed human universal you're trying to explain is particular to the society we live in and a few others.

This book is deeply concerned with human universals because it's aim is to explain how our species became so successful at rapidly - at least compared to evolution - expanding through new biomes.  Even before agriculture or the industrial evolution humans could be found in far more biomes than any other large animal.  There is some set of traits that allows us to do this while our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins are limited to narrow ecological bands.

One of the major themes from the book was social learning and the way humans are good at it in a way that our nearest cousins, chimps and bonobos, aren't.  Humans can from a very young age employ much more sophisticated strategies for copying the behavior of others than other primate can even if chimpanzees are just as good at solving logic puzzles when they're three years old.  And humans copy much more rigorously leading to potentially much more sophisticated cultural evolution.

Here's an example from the book.  There's a plant that was cultivated widely in South America called the Manioc.  It caries a subtle poison in it's untreated from - killing people who consumer it slowly over a number of years.  If you soak mashed Manioc for a day you can remove the bitter flavor but if you soak it for three days you'll be able to remove enough poison that you can safely subsist on it.  In a sense Europeans are lucky in that the food they had to rely on, grain, had processing requirements that were transparent to the people preparing it.  This all makes me think that the lessons of Chesterton's Fence aren't really anything you have to talk about unless you happen to belong to a culture that explicitly praises inventiveness.

Another major difference between humans and chimps is the existence of social norms and the punishment of defectors.  There's something used in biology and anthropology called the ultimatum game.  In it there is a fixed amount of resources in play.  The first player proposes some division of the resources and the second accepts the division or refuses - in which case neither player gets anything.  The "economically rational" thing for the second player to do is to accept any deal that gives them anything since that makes them better off than before.  Chimps behave in the "rational" way but as you might expect humans don't.  I'd actually run into that result before this book and it really shook my belief in my previous view that humans became intelligent to complete with other humans.

There's a whole lot of interesting stuff like that in this book and it really shifted my views on what it means to be human.  There's more good stuff I haven't mentioned on developmental psychology, selective pressures on the sounds in language, and other stuff.  I sort of wish the author had added a degree in neuroscience to his other achievements but we can't have everything.  There's some other thoughts I've had on this on natural selection and complex adaptations but that'll be another blog post.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

December Links

The idea of a Basic Universal Income has been talked about for a long time and has gotten support from such diverse sources as Milton Friedman and the Pirate Party.  The idea is that everybody basically gets money from the government every month.  If that's less than they would have paid in taxes then their taxes are reduced but otherwise they get a check.  The problem with our current system is that its possible for someone making $20k a year to lose more than $10,000 in benefits if they get a raise to $30k a year though it isn't common.  What is common is that they face a very high effective marginal tax rate on that extra $10k and the poor and rich tend to be the most likely to change their behavior in response to tax rates since the poor have more opportunities to save money by doing things other than working and the rich are making enough anyways.  And unlike salaried middle class employees poor people usually have hourly wages and rich people have significant bonuses.  So that's the idea.  Now it looks like Finland is going to try it.

It looks like California is going to be making Google's self driving cars illegal by requiring all automated cars to also be human drivable.  This is a bad idea because transitioning from automated to human driven modes is likely to be very dangerous because people will be out practice and distracted when it happens.  Also that wouldn't really work for disabled people who could potentially benefit from the technology.  Good regulation is critical for self driving cars since safety problems would seriously slow down adoption but these aren't good regulations.

The popular take on the Dunning-Kruger effect is wrong.  I actually knew that but the article goes on to talk about the relationship between money and happiness and I'll admit I fell into just the trap the author described.

Gay and bisexual men can donate blood now!

SpaceX landed their rocket!  It's sooty but in good shape!  Blue Origin did something similar last month but this is much more impressive!

I've long thought that it was sort of silly to use the equinox to say when winter starts and that just calling December, January, and February winter would both be simpler and do a better job of telling you when it would be cold.  I had no idea that this was such a well supported idea used in most countries and that I could just refer to it as "meteorological winter."

I like board games and I like public policy so I'm happy to see people using games to illustrate public policy problems.  Here's  Bay Area Regional PlannerCalifornia Water Crisis, and High Speed Rail.  Of course it would be best to have some that weren't California specific but I still applaud.

The robots I'm working on are still sufficiently stealth mode that I can't be posting links here for our holiday stuff but here's Boston Dynamics's robots in holiday mode.

I was going to write something about our paternalistic relationship with our employers and how that relates to the gig economy and how we could maybe do better.  Then Tim Harford did it better.

Rockets VII: Staging

See also parts  I ,   II ,  III ,  IV ,  V , and  VI . Space is sort of hard to get to.  You've got one of the Space Shuttle Main Engi...