Against the standard narrative of human sexual evolution

post by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T05:28:40.817Z · score: 9 (43 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 154 comments

(This post is the beginning of a short sequence discussing evidence and arguments presented by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá's Sex at Dawn, inspired by the spirit of Kaj_Sotala's recent discussion of What Intelligence Tests Miss. It covers Part I: On the Origin of the Specious.)

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality was first brought to my attention by a rhapsodic mention in Dan Savage's advice column, and while it seemed quite relevant to my interests I am generally very skeptical of claims based on evolutionary psychology. I did eventually decide to pick up the book, primarily so that I could raid its bibliography for material for an upcoming post on jealousy management, and secondarily to test my vulnerability to confirmation bias. I succeeded in the first and failed in the second: Sex at Dawn is by leaps and bounds the best evolutionary psychology book I've read, largely because it provides copious evidence for its claims.1 I mention the strength of my opinion as a disclaimer of sorts, so that careful readers may take the appropriate precautions.


The book's first section focuses on the current generally accepted explanation for human sexual evolution, which the authors call "the standard narrative." It's an explanation that should be quite familiar to regular LessWrong readers: men are attracted to fertile-appearing women and try to prevent them from having sex with other men so as to confirm the paternity of their offspring; women are attracted to men who seem like they will be good providers for their children and try to prevent them from forming intimate bonds with other women so as to maintain access to their resources.

This narrative is remarkable for several reasons. In Chapter 2, Ryan and Jethá point out that it fits in neatly with much of Darwin's work, which famously drew upon Malthus and, to a lesser extent, Hobbes. The problem here is, of course, that Malthus's theory of population growth was wrong (see Michael Vassar's criticism and my reply). Like Hobbes, he looked at his society's current condition and assumed that prehistorical man lived in a similar state; the book calls this unfortunate tendency "Flintstonization" after the famously modern stone-age cartoon family. Those familiar with the heuristics and biases program may recognize this as an example of the availability heuristic.

The human population of the earth exceeded 1 billion individuals when Darwin was writing his works on human evolution, and his conclusions were drawn from the study of living individuals in densely-populated modern cultures; it is remarkable that these findings are claimed to be equally true of the small bands of immediate-return foragers2 that defined anatomically modern human existence between the time they emerged roughly 200,000 years ago and the adoption of agriculture 190,000 years later, during which period there were likely no more than 5 million human beings alive at any one time (to offer a very generous estimate).

Unfortunately, many prominent evolutionary psychologists seem to think it's obvious that these situations should be parallel, as can be seen in the ubiquity of justifications of the standard narrative based on just-so stories and studies performed on undergrad psychology majors. (Examples to follow momentarily.)

Another curiosity is that, "where there is debate about the nature of innate human sexuality [among supporters of the standard narrative], the only two acceptable options appear to be that humans evolved to be either monogamous or polygynous." (Ryan and Jethá, 11, emphasis theirs.) This has been amply demonstrated by a number of commenters on my recent post about the common modern assumption of monogamy. The idea that humans of both genders might be naturally inclined to have multiple partners didn't get much mention3, despite an embarrassing wealth of evidence supporting that position. But I'm getting ahead of myself; the anthropological and anatomical support for the multiple-mating hypothesis will be covered in my next two posts.


In Chapter 3, Ryan and Jethá focus on four major research areas that are used to support the standard narrative. These lines of research all rely on Flintstoned reasoning; taken together, they lead to the standard narrative's conclusion, which Ryan and Jethá summarize as "Darwin says your mother's a whore." (50) The four areas are:

The relatively weak female libido - Donald Symons and A. J. Bateman have both claimed (among numerous others) that men are much more interested in sex than women are. (Pay no attention to the multiple orgasms behind the curtain.) One of the most cited studies in evolutionary psychology purports to demonstrate this by comparing the responses of men and women when solicited by strangers for casual sex. But such studies do not distinguish between social norms and genetic predispositions, leaving evolution's role commensurately cloudy.

Male parental investment (MPI) - Robert Wright wrote in The Moral Animal that "In every human culture in the anthropological record, marriage... is the norm, and the family is the atom of social organization. Fathers everywhere feel love for their children.... This love leads fathers to help feed and defend their children, and teach them useful things." He is not alone in this view, but the argument is based on a number of dubious assumptions, especially that "a hunter could refuse to share his catch with other hungry people living in the close-knit band of foragers (including nieces, nephews, and children of lifelong friends) without being shamed, shunned, and banished from the community." (Ryan and Jethá, 54)

Sexual jealousy and paternity certainty - David Buss's research has demonstrated that, on average, (young, educated, modern, Western) men are more upset by sexual infidelity than women, while (young, educated, modern, Western) women are more upset by emotional infidelity than men. Or, at least, this is true when subjects are given only those two options; David A. Lishner repeated the study but also offered respondents the option of being equally upset by emotional and sexual infidelity. In his version, a majority of both men and women preferred the "equally upset" option, which substantially narrowed the gap between the sexes. The remainder of this gap can be further narrowed by the finding that women asked this question are more likely than men to assume that emotional infidelity automatically includes sexual infidelity. (This paragraph has been edited to fix a reasoning failure that was pointed out to me by a friend.)

Extended receptivity and concealed (or cryptic) ovulation - "Among primates, the female capacity and willingness to have sex any time, any place is characteristic only of bonobos and humans." (Ryan and Jethá, 58) While Helen Fisher has proposed that in humans this trait evolved as a means of reinforcing a pair-bond, "this explanation works only if we believe that males--including our 'primitive' ancestors--were interested in sex all the time with just one female." (Ryan and Jethá, 60, emphasis theirs.)


Chapter 4 expands on the role that the other apes play in the standard narrative. Arguments that evolutionary psychology should focus on the gibbon as a model of human sexuality are frequently attempted on the grounds that they are the only monogamous ape. But gibbons are the ape most distantly related to humans (we last shared a common ancestor ~20 million years ago), live in the trees of Southeast Asia, have little social interaction outside of their small family units, have sex infrequently and only for purposes of reproduction, and aren't very bright.

The chimpanzee model provides much more coherent support for the standard narrative: like modern humans, they use tools, have intricate, male-dominated social hierarchies, and are highly territorial and aggressive. The most recent common ancestor they share with humans lived approximately 6 million years ago, by most estimates. (I originally wrote "between 3 million and 800,000 years ago", which is untrue. Thanks to tpc for pointing that out.) There is just one unfortunate snag: "among chimpanzees, ovulating females mate, on average, from six to eight times per day, and they are often eager to respond to the mating invitations of any and all males in the group." (Ryan and Jethá, 69)

Helen Fisher, Frans de Waal, and other advocates of the standard narrative have claimed that the success of the human species is directly due to the abandonment of chimpanzee-style promiscuity, but they lack a convincing explanation for why this abandonment should have occurred in the first place. Worse yet, there is a particularly important piece of evidence that they are reluctant to acknowledge:

Given the prominent role of chimpanzee behavior in supporting the standard narrative, how can we not include the equally relevant bonobo data in our conjectures concerning human prehistory? Remember, we are genetically equidistant from chimps and bonobos. (Ryan and Jethá, 73, emphasis theirs.)

Oddly enough, bonobos have patterns of sexual behavior that are more like those of humans than any other animal. They hold hands, french kiss, have (heterosexual) sex while facing each other, and have oral sex. Compared to chimps, they're more promiscuous, more egalitarian, less violent, and less territorial. If it seems like this should be evidence for a multiple-mating hypothesis for humans, well, it is. The next post in this series will examine the anthropological evidence Ryan and Jethá use to support this view.


1: I have necessarily omitted much of the evidence that Ryan and Jethá provide in favor of their claims. Please feel welcome to request further information if there are any points you find particularly dubious; while I am not an expert in this field, I will at least attempt to pass on the sources cited.

2: Immediate-return foragers are those who eat food shortly after acquiring it and do not make significant use of techniques for its processing or storage.

3: I was admittedly among those dubious of such a conclusion.

154 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by knb · 2010-07-23T09:59:13.235Z · score: 18 (18 votes) · LW · GW

My Evolutionary Psychology class never claimed that people are naturally monogamous or polygynous. The "story" is much more complex than that.

For example, we learned that women are more likely to cheat on boyfriends/husbands while ovulating. They also are more likely to find feminine male faces attractive while non-fertile as compared to when they're fertile. When ovulating, they find highly masculine faces more attractive. This fits well with evo. psych explanations for human sexuality (securing a feminine male's resources and parental care and a healthy, masculine male's genes) but it is neither monogamous nor polygynous. Nor is it polyandrous. Those are idealized concepts that don't get at the selfish-gene replicating nature of human sexuality.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:32:54.334Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed regarding the standard content of science-grade evolutionary psychology. That's what people who actually make and test predictions say.

It seems to be the case though that most supposed evolutionary psychology is speculation based on fairly long logical chains with fairly high probabilities associated with each step and a lack of awareness of conjunction fallacies. This method can work, but it isn't science, and when combined with motivated reasoning it's not one of the methods of rationality either.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-07-24T03:15:39.750Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If it produces successful advance predictions - if you do new experiments to test the idea and they seem to come out pretty much the right way - then it's probably working well enough.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-24T15:51:16.524Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed. But that's mostly not what goes by the name.
Also, massive modularity isn't necessarily due to genetic biases. T&C Evo Psych consists of a number of logically distinct hypotheses, some of which are true but obvious, some true and non-obvious, some false. Most Evo Psych is basically what I just described.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-07-23T07:20:55.499Z · score: 16 (22 votes) · LW · GW

This post doesn't make a convincing argument for any of its points. You go all over the place, hinting that many people may be wrong, but you don't nail it down that they actually are wrong. Your main objective seems to be proving that the ancestors of humans were polyamorous rather than monogamous or polygynous. If you believe this thesis, you probably have good evidence to support it. Why not just list this evidence instead?

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-07-23T10:35:04.950Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Haven't read the book yet, but here's the supporting evidence I gathered from the Amazon.com preview and the authors' website and blog. (I probably missed some so please add to the list.)

  • females have potential for multiple orgasms
  • higher popularity of pornography with one female and multiple males compared to one male and multiple females
  • female copulatory vocalizations
  • male anatomy indicating sperm competition
  • Coolidge effect in females
  • it fits better with "fierce egalitarianism" of forager bands: female sexual exclusivity is necessary for males to determine paternity, but if all resources are equally shared, then there is little point in knowing paternity
  • ETA: our closest primate relations, chimps and bonobos, have "multimale-multifemale mating systems"

On a separate note, while it seems plausible that the authors of the book are right that our forager ancestors were polyamorous, it's not clear why that matters to us in making our own choices, given that our ancestors switched over to monogamy/polygyny as soon as agriculture was invented.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-07-23T13:14:27.469Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

female sexual exclusivity is necessary for males to determine paternity, but if all resources are equally shared, then there is little point in knowing paternity

This sounds weird. Your genes don't want you to know you're the father, they want you to be the father, and female sexual exclusivity helps with that.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-07-23T13:33:58.597Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, your genes want both, since if you know you are the father then your genes can help direct you to giving more resources to your offspring rather than others. Indeed, there are plausible payoff matrices one can construct where one would rather have fewer offspring but be more certain which offspring are yours.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-07-23T13:40:33.220Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Correction accepted, but it doesn't apply in the "fierce egalitarianism" scenario that Wei Dai mentioned.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-07-23T13:41:14.925Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I agree. If one assumes near complete equidistribution of resources then it won't apply.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-08-01T12:00:06.687Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You actually don't need to "know" which offspring are yours. You just need to direct more resources towards them. In fact not knowing a child is yours in a fiercely egalitarian culture might help you find good excuses for why you treat him preferably to other children. One just needs to "like" that child more for some reason and then the rationalizing mind will find ways to justify or conceal this preferential treatment.

A more finely tuned subconscious kin recognition system based on visual appraisal of facial features (if I recall right men do prefer children that are more similar to themselves) or perhaps something like smell might do the trick.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-07-23T21:52:25.739Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your genes don't want you to know you're the father, they want you to be the father, and female sexual exclusivity helps with that.

Yes, each male's genes would want him to gather a large harem and enforce sexual exclusivity for "his" females, even if he couldn't preferentially contribute resources to his own children. But how is he supposed to accomplish this in an egalitarian forager band?

On the other hand, a female's genes would want her to be sexually exclusive, voluntarily, if that meant her children's father would preferentially contribute resources to them. Otherwise, they prefer sperm competition, since that gives her a better chance of getting the fittest sperm, and increases the genetic diversity of her children. (At least that's my understanding of the authors' logic.)

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:22:52.915Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Your genes might also want you to signal that you don't know who the father is so that your altruistic actions towards the child are seen as altruistic rather than selfish. It's a just-so story, but not crazy.

Alternatively, sexual feelings might be radically genetically undetermined, less genetically determined than almost everything else about us, to partially prevent red queen's races, runaway sexual selection, inbreeding caused by agreement with parents regarding sexual preferences, and excess conflict over fitness-irrelevant superficialities.

This combination of intensity and flexibility in a drive might make our sexual feelings radically flexible, and thus make them such a good lever for manipulating group dynamics that meme-level group selection reliably grabs onto them and adapts group sexual norms that shape our broader psychology to the group's adaptive niche.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T14:33:56.418Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but sperm competition is an easier departure from small, reciprocally altruistic forager bands. Pre-agriculture, defecting in that particular Prisoner's Dilemma led to either death or a much narrower selection of mates. Getting rid of the strict enforcement of resource sharing (by adopting agriculture) is the discontinuity that makes this counter-intuitive.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-07-23T16:25:14.514Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ah I've see you've thought of the effect of agriculture, I should have read all the comments before posting.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T16:49:30.750Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Your point was a good one. The societal changes wrought by agriculture cannot be emphasized heavily enough.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-07-24T03:14:04.484Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

higher popularity of pornography with one female and multiple males compared to one male and multiple females

Supply-driven. Male actors are much cheaper.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-24T03:28:18.826Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Men viewing erotic material suggestive of sperm competition (two men with one woman) produce ejaculates containing a higher percentage of motile sperm than men viewing explicit images of only three women.

(Ryan and Jethá, 231, referring to research by Kilgallon and Simmons)

comment by Sniffnoy · 2010-07-24T04:52:13.405Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm finding it a bit hard to draw that conclusion from this when there's no precisely-one-male-present condition, and I don't see any mention of any experiments that did do that in the actual article, either. It could just be due to the presence of a male, and not the number of them.

Perhaps more importantly, it's also not clear that what pornography men like should correlate with what causes them to produce more motile sperm!

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-07-26T04:18:29.188Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would be surprised if a greater number of male actors does not also result in a salary increase for the actress. This does not contradict your point, but it may undermine it; I'm hardly familiar with pay structures. More significantly, what would you need to observe to conclude it was demand-driven?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-07-23T16:20:06.037Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you on this. However I think you need to realize something else. Hunter gatherers are relatively egalitarian, farmer communities and especially city dwellers are not.

A fair number of humans have been exposed to selective pressures since the dawn of agriculture and civilization. There is no doubt that we see changes of typical skeletal features in the last 40k years (especially the anomalous shrinking of brain size accompanied by growth in the "advanced" regions, which defies the previous trend of the past few 100k and perhaps even million years as shown by the fossil record to be the case among all hominids (not just Homo Sapiens)), modern geneticists also see many sweeps still taking place in modern populations. Harpending and Cochran postulate on this and other things that we've seen major genetic change, especially on genes that affect things like like behaviour, infectious disease resistance and digestion in historical times.

Perhaps we are ill suited to monogamy and patriarchal sexual polygamy (one husband many wives) because we just recently started responding to pressures in its favour (that have also recently nearly desisted with the advent of equality of the sexes and contraception). Evidence that at least some preference for monogamy may exist is the dropping rates of polyandrous marriage in the Himalayan region as soon as the economic circumstances allowed different arrangements, while people are today only slowly responding to the de facto legal, reproductive and financial disincentives for monogamous marriage.

However a counter point may be tropical Southern Chinese (a few smaller ethnic groups still practice this) and West African farmer communities where we don't see such a patriarchal pattern. But perhaps this is due to the different economic trade offs of their particular type of agriculture.

Also at the end of the day maybe I'm mistaking pastoral patterns for agricultural patterns of selection since Eurasian and East Africans people's have a fair share of those among their ancestors.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:42:49.450Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. Sounds like an interesting and plausible scholarly argument!

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-07-26T04:46:16.017Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that the point is that a particular view is right, so much as that a particular view is wrong. I don't think that there's quite adequate evidence to conclusively disprove such a hypothesis, only evidence to call it into question, which this does, if imperfectly. I think the author is erring on the side of readability and not enumeration of evidence.

comment by Violet · 2010-07-23T08:36:09.741Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

The Sex at Dawn story is nice but the whole debate seems backwards.

Everyone picks their favorite modern social models and then molds citations and stories to support that it must be natural and even the ancient hunter gatherers...

Popularized evo-psych seems to be a lot like appealing that a certain way of life is "natural" and thus "good".

btw Is there a name to the "natural -> good" bias/fallacy?

comment by cousin_it · 2010-07-23T08:42:12.075Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

It's called the naturalistic fallacy.

You're right that the debate seems backwards. Evo psych should be used to make correct predictions and find optimal actions, not create or justify moral norms.

comment by thomblake · 2010-07-23T14:27:11.416Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

btw Is there a name to the "natural -> good" bias/fallacy?

It's called the naturalistic fallacy.

N.B. This is the less common use of the phrase "naturalistic fallacy", and where possible "appeal to nature" might be preferred (when describing an argument).

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2010-07-24T01:29:22.160Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, "appeal to nature" is the much more common use of "naturalistic fallacy," unless you only count use by philosophers.

comment by thomblake · 2010-07-25T16:10:06.724Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Touché

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-07-24T03:17:32.975Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Popularized evo-psych seems to be a lot like appealing that a certain way of life is "natural" and thus "good".

Does anyone actually do this? Do I just hang out in the wrong circles? Are there people who do this and yet I never talk to any of them or read anything they write?

comment by [deleted] · 2010-07-24T20:14:22.158Z · score: 10 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I have definitely seen it leveled as an argument against feminists (or, more generally, pro-altruist exhortations.) Men are evolved to cheat on women and be bad fathers, so don't ask them to do otherwise. Humans are evolved to make war, so don't ask them to do otherwise. You hear a lot of evo-psych from people who have a generally pessimistic view of human nature: everybody's mean, nobody is nice, all niceness is futile.

I find that attitude exhausting and the associated arguments usually overstated. But hey, that's just me.

comment by DanArmak · 2010-07-24T22:14:11.153Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The standard rejoinder is that women are evolved to ask men to stop cheating, so men shouldn't ask them to do otherwise.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2010-07-24T23:03:54.761Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I've evolved to stop talking to people who abuse evolutionary psychology.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-07-24T23:14:36.704Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Such pessimism is dangerously close to fatalism, and wrong for the same reasons. Just as we have reasons to contemplate our choices despite their inevitability, we have reason to fight our bad urges even under the (weaker!) influence of genetics.

And then there's the fact that societies with stronger norms against infidelity had less of it, suggesting that men "had the willpower all along!"

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-27T17:40:39.569Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yes people do it. Most of the time actually. You just hang in the right circles to avoid it.

comment by Violet · 2010-07-24T19:26:13.780Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, unfortunately people do this.

comment by saturn · 2010-07-24T08:10:54.880Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ever been in a health food store? And then of course there's this.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T09:14:04.064Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Sex at Dawn doesn't talk about any modern social models. One of its central points is that the lives of hunter-gatherers were radically different from the lives of everyone born after the adoption of agriculture.

The authors aren't making any moral claims, so far as I'm aware. They're just trying to figure out how evolution shaped our sexual psychology; while this should probably tell us quite a bit about how to conduct our sexual affairs in the modern world, that's a topic they touch on only very briefly, and they draw no particular conclusions.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:30:07.190Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That's only true if one accepts the basic evolutionary psychology premise that we have a strong bias towards a particular pattern such that any other pattern will cause unhappiness and psychopathology. What if psychopathology comes from conflict between individual idiosyncratic sexual feelings (caused by early, incorrectly locked-in interpretations of group norms?) and group norms?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T14:44:17.213Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't accept that premise and I still think it's a point worth investigating. It's obvious that monogamy does make many people happy, but justifying it by an appeal to nature that isn't even true does few favors to the >50% of people who have been failed by the ideal of life-long monogamy.

What if psychopathology comes from conflict between individual idiosyncratic sexual feelings (caused by early, incorrectly locked-in interpretations of group norms?) and group norms?

It's as good an explanation as any other, I suppose. Ryan and Jetha do talk a bit about paraphilia in men, but that chapter disappointingly lacked the rigor displayed elsewhere, so I wasn't planning to discuss it.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-25T00:58:56.682Z · score: 7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

I think, WrongBot, that you may have bit off more than you can chew. I'm sure rationality can be deployed talking about sexual mores, but it is probably even harder to do than in politics.

In politics, people have to at least pretend to be vaguely rational or their opponents clobber them with good counter arguments, whereas with sexual stuff most people frequently lie, and are sometimes are even consciously rewarded for doing so.

If you insist on pushing forward, I'd recommend not posting anything until you have a reasonable idea of the order in which arguments and claims will be posted so that you never have to say that evidence for a conclusion in "this" post "will be covered in my next two posts". Seriously... diagram the claims, the lemmas, and the evidence in a tree (or a web?). Then start at the bottom (with the evidence) converting article sized chunks of the diagram into essays with clean prose, helpful pictures, and a review for logic and typos before you post it.

Basically, start with the evidence and proceed to the bottom line.

It doesn't matter whether Malthus had shaky assumptions in a paper two centuries ago. (And it seems weird to me that you would support this claim by linking to a comment of yours that stands at -5, though maybe the votes happened after the link?)

If you want to see how hunting and gathering human social systems operate, then try actually seeking out evidence about how hunting and gathering human social systems operate! Write some posts about actual humans living in ways that are hypothesized to be similar to humans in the ancestral environment so your audience is on the same page as you with the evidence about what kind of selection pressures our ancestors faced. Then back link within a reasonable amount of time (before the audience changes substantially or forgets) in support of reasonable conclusions based on this evidence. Maybe polyamory will come out in a good light based on this evidence? Who knows? Certainly not me... I haven't looked up the evidence yet.

My vague guess would be that if we're wired for anything then its to be to be culturally re-programmable on the subject, because different cultures seem to do gender stuff differently. Maybe arguing about this stuff is wired into us, in roughly the same way that we seem to be wired to form into factions and get all political at the drop of a hat. This might go some way to explaining why people seem to go crazy when they talk about reproduction...

If rationality means anything I would expect that it should be a bit more difficult to put together arguments rationally (as compared to untutored slapdash methods that most people bring to belief formation efforts). That extra effort should pay off in conclusions that are actually more accurate and useful. If they don't, then the whole idea of a teachable "method of rationality" is a sham.

But assuming there is some point to rationality, this article doesn't appear to be living up to those standards. This leads to my suggestion that you either give up, or else re-plan your "polyamory sequence".

(If someone is wondering about my biases given the critical reception to the post, I'd just like to point out that I'm a conscious and ethical monogamist, and came to that position after reading The Ethical Slut. I don't think poly people are morally bad at all, I'm friends with some people living that way quite happily, I just sometimes find myself feeling sorry for people who jump into it and end up as wrang wrangs. All the "owning your emotions" and "being ethical" stuff is also useful for simple pair bonding, without jumping into a social "N-body problem". Basically, I've never thought I was smart enough to do that sort of thing "right", and now the point is moot because I'm married and our relationship is explicitly and consciously closed.)

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T01:21:27.935Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to see how hunting and gathering human social systems operate, then try actually seeking out evidence about how hunting and gathering human social systems operate!

None of the groups cited in that article are nomadic foragers.

But assuming there is some point to rationality, this article doesn't appear to be living up to those standards. This leads to my suggestion that you either give up, or else re-plan your "polyamory sequence".

This sequence is not heading towards "We should all be polyamorous and be happy forever." First, the multiple mating practiced by prehistoric foragers more closely resembles the behavior of bonobos than it does modern polyamory. Second, this isn't my material. I am presenting content from Sex at Dawn, and foolishly thought this sequence should follow roughly the same order of presentation as the book; I will not make such a mistake again.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-25T02:27:38.364Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The other half of my response - broken in two so the discussion can branch naturally :-)

This sequence is not heading towards "We should all be polyamorous and be happy forever."

Perhaps I misunderstood this bit:

I did eventually decide to pick up the book, primarily so that I could raid its bibliography for material for an upcoming post on jealousy management, and secondarily to test my vulnerability to confirmation bias. I succeeded in the first and failed in the second

I interpreted this to mean that you knew that your beliefs were nonstandard and your beliefs became more extreme after you were exposed to evidence. So I guessed that before reading you thought (guessing and summarizing here for concision, apologies if I miss the details) (1) that standard narratives about sexual relationships are confused enough to indicate that people could profitably reconsider their own sexual habits (as per your recent Unknown knowns: Why did you choose to be monogamous? post which I understood to be the first post in the sequence), and after reading the book, you thought (2) that this was still more true.

If these assumptions were correct, the implication would be (1) this is a case where most people really are wrong/crazy and exposure to evidence makes people justifiably extreme, or else (2) you were admitting to becoming more extreme in your beliefs because something lead you to discount evidence that disconfirmed your preferred theory while remembering and repeating confirming evidence. I thought the admission was very admirable, because that kind of self awareness is rare and seems usually to require effortful mindfulness. Even if you haven't processed through to an update based on that kind of meta-recognition, noticing it would be pretty impressive.

The admission implied that you were aware that you were grinding an axe of some sort... If you think I misinterpret the nature of your planned advocacy, please let me know :-)

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T03:18:13.481Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

My post on unknown knowns isn't really related to this sequence (and that's why I identified this post as the sequence's beginning), but that's just a nitpick. I'm trying hard to avoid making any prescriptive conclusions in my discussion of Sex at Dawn, and instead to stick to unraveling the evidence about the conditions under which human beings evolved.

Before I read the book, I thought that "polyamory as popularly defined is basically a kick in the teeth to evolution." Sex at Dawn makes a convincing case that the opposite is true, which may mean that polyamory is a better idea in the modern setting than I had thought. But I'm still very uncertain on that count, because the modern setting and the evolutionary setting are so different that what is adaptive in one is often totally crazy in the other.

If these assumptions were correct, the implication would be (1) this is a case where most people really are wrong/crazy and exposure to evidence makes people justifiably extreme, or else (2) you were admitting to becoming more extreme in your beliefs because something lead you to discount evidence that disconfirmed your preferred theory while remembering and repeating confirming evidence.

When I picked up the book, I was expecting that the case it made would be bad and that I might be tempted to agree with it anyway because I am generally a fan of polyamory. I can't say definitively one way or the other whether I succumbed to that temptation: the book's case seems like a very good one to me, which could either be true or the product of a motivated evaluation. I think that it's the former, but that is itself evidence that supports both hypotheses.

The admission implied that you were aware that you were grinding an axe of some sort... If you think I misinterpret the nature of your planned advocacy, please let me know :-)

The axe I'm grinding is, I suppose, that I don't think monogamy is built into the universal nature of human beings. This hardly seems like an axe to me, but a number of vehement objections seem to indicate otherwise.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-25T05:03:17.543Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

OK, so now I'm thinking back to the first thing I said, which is that this subject is more difficult to talk about in public (without things going off the rails) than politics - so I think you should expect craziness on this subject.

I mean, laws about sex and relationships are frequently used for political purposes to increase the emotional drama of politics in order to get people worked up enough to vote...

I think my priors for this conversation were messed up but are improving, maybe? Each time I see more of your writing on this subject I'm surprised again, but a bit less so.

In the "poly kicks evolution in the teeth" link I was left scratching my head wondering why "Polyandry is no more egalitarian than polygyny; any relationship in which only one person is permitted to have other partners lies outside polyamory's accepted definition". I would have said that in a threesome, logically speaking, there are three dyadic partnerships and each person has two partners, but I think maybe you assumed (1) that no one is non-heterosexual, (2) only sexual partnerships count, and (3) all groups have at least one penis and at least one vagina (so you can't just have three wives or three husbands in a closed but poly relationship).

I mean, if we're ignoring all of our assumptions about human nature, why not treat orientation as "bisexual until tested" (reference for those who missed the joke) and therefore assume that unless otherwise specified the problem with a closed relationship with "2 of one gender and 1 of the other" is that the 1 doesn't get enough variety in their life because they only get to have sex with the opposite gender... instead of always having that "little extra bit of variety in their married life" :-P

For a more "normal" scenario, the traditional explanation for polyandry in Tibet is that inheritance is patrilineal but "fair" (divided between all brothers) which would lead to farm holdings too small to support a family for any one brother (and starvation for all their families). The solution is to have the brothers share the farm, and also share the wife. Their primary loyalty is to each other, based on shared blood, and the single wife limits the number of possible children in a incredibly resource limited environment.

It originally seemed to me like you were coming from the poly community and reaching out to the rationality community (partly because I was hearing recapitulations of what I recognize as "defensive rationalizations of poly relationships" and assumed you'd originated them). Now I think (maybe?) it is the other way around: you're starting with rationality and trying to bring us along as you explore poly issues?

All I've been trying to say is that all sorts of concrete, relevant, and surprising details come up in anthropology, and if you want to say something controversial about human nature, you should come at it with a measure of care, and start the public explanation with the data. I don't think this is the standard approach taken with the poly community... at all.

So my tentative guess about our exchange here is that (1) "your axe" is simply thinking that it is worthwhile to be open minded about this controversial topic and (2) the defensive and biased elements of the arguments (to the degree that they exist and I'm noticing them) are mostly passed through from the source community that you're drawing from as you read into the literature and summarize it for LW. I thought the admission of "an axe" was connected to "the defensive arguments" and was wrong about the connection.

Did I miss again, or do you think this is closer to the mark?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T06:45:54.521Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In the "poly kicks evolution in the teeth" link I was left scratching my head wondering why "Polyandry is no more egalitarian than polygyny; any relationship in which only one person is permitted to have other partners lies outside polyamory's accepted definition". I would have said that in a threesome, logically speaking, there are three dyadic partnerships and each person has two partners, but I think maybe you assumed (1) that no one is non-heterosexual, (2) only sexual partnerships count, and (3) all groups have at least one penis and at least one vagina (so you can't just have three wives or three husbands in a closed but poly relationship).

A triad in which all three people are involved with each other, regardless of gender, absolutely counts as polyamory. As typically practiced, I believe, polygyny and polyandry don't, because the man or the woman, respectively, is the only one allowed to have multiple partners. (For the record, I'm bisexual, so I was definitely not assuming (1).)

It originally seemed to me like you were coming from the poly community and reaching out to the rationality community (partly because I was hearing recapitulations of what I recognize as "defensive rationalizations of poly relationships" and assumed you'd originated them). Now I think (maybe?) it is the other way around: you're starting with rationality and trying to bring us along as you explore poly issues?

I've been poly for ~4 years, which substantially predates my discovery of any sort of rationalist community, though I would have happily identified myself as a rationalist from about age six onward. Polyamory is unquestionably the right approach for me; while I doubt that that is universally true for all people, I believe it is worth careful consideration, and that many would find it advantageous to adopt.

So my tentative guess about our exchange here is that (1) "your axe" is simply thinking that it is worthwhile to be open minded about this controversial topic and (2) the defensive and biased elements of the arguments (to the degree that they exist and I'm noticing them) are mostly passed through from the source community that you're drawing from as you read into the literature and summarize it for LW. I thought the admission of "an axe" was connected to "the defensive arguments" and was wrong about the connection.

So, yes, I'd agree with (1) here. As for (2), well, this post is the first in a sequence that is describing/summarizing arguments from a book, but the authors are not (to my knowledge) polyamorous, nor does the book make a strong conclusion in favor of polyamory.

If I have been biased or defensive on this topic elsewhere, that is my failing alone.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-27T21:18:17.420Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I thought about this for a while, and I think I just wanted to say that I appreciate your reasoned, revealing, and responsible tone. Also...

I've been poly for ~4 years, which substantially predates my discovery of any sort of rationalist community, though I would have happily identified myself as a rationalist from about age six onward. Polyamory is unquestionably the right approach for me; while I doubt that that is universally true for all people, I believe it is worth careful consideration, and that many would find it advantageous to adopt.

This would make a fantastic opener for a post. It offers a basis for your expertise on the subject and then a wonderfully clean thesis whose well-argued justification would probably be very educational. By setting the bar at "unquestionably for you" and "high value of information for nearly everyone" the justification would probably involve evidence and reasoning that was quite striking :-)

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-27T21:55:24.224Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Why, thank you. I'm hoping that, between my Unknown Known post and this sequence, I'll be able to do a pretty decent job of demonstrating the high value of information claim. As for why it's so awesome for me, that really has more to do with quirks of my own psychology than anything else. Just off the top of my head:

  • It makes me miserable to have to think about relationships in terms of opportunity costs.
  • I prefer to do most of my socializing with well-known and well-trusted friends.
  • I attach relatively little emotional weight to sex.
  • I'm generally very good at managing my emotions, so I'm not much bothered by jealousy.
  • There are many traits I find attractive that couldn't coexist in the same person. (Being bisexual is the extreme case.)

And, oh, probably lots more. But poly being a slam-dunk for me doesn't say much about whether other people should adopt it (except for the tiny subset who share most of those traits), so I've been avoiding talking about my own experiences too much. Do you think that's the wrong move?

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-31T00:41:11.471Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I paused to think again :-) My instantaneous response idea was to generate a small laundry list of good and bad effects from talking about personal experiences, then pair it down to examples of categories, then use this to say "its really complicated, I don't know".

When an interaction is in full-on "adversarial debate mode" I think revealing personal stuff can be a bad thing to do if you accurately predict that the other person is just going to leap on your revelations as evidence for the bias they have been trying to accuse you of having in the course of an ad hominum and/or ad logicam. (And unfortunately, the difference between "that's a bias and therefore I win" versus "that's a bias and let's try to overcome it" is small and depends critically on tone.)

In this case, for me, I think it was the right move because I ended up seeing it as a "lowering of defenses" (a sort of interpersonal CBM) after I'd implicitly requested that you do so. It would have been horrible of me to use something against you that you had revealed about yourself after I raised the possibility of defensiveness.

So um... I think, maybe, yay for us? :-P

::internet high five::

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-07-25T06:52:54.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One way that polyamory might not be a kick in the teeth to evolution-- if extended blood families are difficult to recruit for child-raising in the modern world (as seems to be the case), and it's to the advantage of both parents and children to have additional help with child-raising, then the ability to recruit additional adults (whether in sexual relationships or not) should be selected for.

And, of course, you can kick evolution in the teeth any time you feel like it, and I think people spend a lot of time doing just that. [1] It's just that you can't get away with it indefinitely.

[1] It generally doesn't seem to occur to people in dowry cultures to marry their daughters to people from non-dowry cultures, thus saving the money and still getting grandchildren.

I use this as evidence that memes can trump genes fairly easily.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-27T16:56:57.645Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's pretty obvious that monogamy isn't built into human nature, but I object to the post pretty vehemently. Do you have any examples of vehement objections by people who insist that polyamory is 'bad' as opposed to by people who think that bad reasoning is 'bad'?

I even said I planned to read the book some day, as it sounded interesting but badly reasoned. However, a short summary of an interesting but badly reasoned book, when the summary itself doesn't comment on the bad reasoning but instead endorses said reasoning, on a rationality blog, seems to indicate to me that the author of the summary needs more practice before they can talk rationally about the subject.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-27T18:31:32.310Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have any examples of vehement objections by people who insist that polyamory is 'bad' as opposed to by people who think that bad reasoning is 'bad'?

Not specifically, no, nor did I expect to see objections on those grounds. LW generally frowns on unjustified moral absolutes, so far as I can tell. What I did expect to see (and do see) is motivated arguing that ignores my repeated protestations that this is the introductory first post in a sequence.

It is certainly true that I erred in mentioning the proposed hypothesis before showing the evidence that had gone into locating it. Yes, my bad. But the intended purpose of the post was not so obtuse that no one could comprehend it.

Why are you so convinced that Sex at Dawn (and my belief in its conclusion) is badly reasoned? You haven't seen the reasoning yet! Would it be an unendurable annoyance if I were to ask you to hold off on forming a conclusion for another 12 hours, while I finish the second post? It won't contain all the evidence I'm planning to present, but there's a chance it'll convince you that there was at least some amount of reasoning involved in this whole process.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-28T06:59:53.599Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What claims are do you think are being made and how do you identify them as motivated arguments?

comment by Blueberry · 2010-07-27T18:12:56.831Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

So you haven't read the book, but you know it's badly reasoned, and anyone who endorses it must not be good at rationality?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-28T06:58:01.240Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Strong disagreements with Pinker are strong evidence for poor reasoning, but much weaker evidence for being wrong.

The blog post itself and its comments are pretty compelling evidence for poor rationality skills under stress, most notably the Malthus bit, as people other than myself have mentioned.

I endorse lots of books with fairly bad reasoning.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2010-07-28T01:12:50.946Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm also surprised and confused by Michael Vassar's reaction to this post.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-25T02:26:44.198Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Breaking the responses in two so the discussion can branch naturally :-)

None of the groups cited in that article are nomadic foragers.

The link was intended as a convenient example of a place on the web to find an overview of real world anthropological data relating to sex relations, which could be summarized prior to summarizing conclusions that are probably inferentially far from the audience.

The particular details of people's food acquisition habits weren't the focus, merely the general fact of the technology scale and the availability of evidence on the subject. I don't understand why you'd restrict yourself to "nomadic foragers" as opposed to the more general class of "hunter gatherer" who may or may not be nomadic. Is there a reason one is more important than the other?

Human "sedentarization" is hypothesized (see here for an example of observations contextulized in light of the hypothesis) to correlate with gender discrimination (more mobility goes with less discrimination - IE relatively less coercion of women by men) so I could see how there would be incentives to want to talk about mobile societies where historical arrangements were likely to be somewhat less horrible. An appeal to nature based on nomads is probably going to be a little more egalitarian and pleasant :-)

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T02:51:54.214Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand why you'd restrict yourself to "nomadic foragers" as opposed to the more general class of "hunter gatherer" who may or may not be nomadic. Is there a reason one is more important than the other?

Agriculture didn't develop until ~8000 B.C. Prior to that point, there were no sedentary hunter-gatherers; mobility offered flexibility, and there was no reason at all to stay in one place.

So if we're talking about human evolution, which took place almost entirely before that point, sedentary hunter-gatherers aren't an accurate model of the conditions that shaped our development.

An appeal to nature based on nomads is probably going to be a little more egalitarian and pleasant :-)

I resent the implication that I am making an appeal to nature. However egalitarian and pleasant our nomadic ancestors' lives may have been, I have no desire to imitate them. The best that evolutionary psychology can do is identify certain biological predilections; it cannot and should not attempt to justify them.

comment by JenniferRM · 2010-07-25T05:39:52.625Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

In additioned to teageegeepea's points, the Mbuti (who were in the original link I provided that was criticized for having no "nomadic foragers") have villages but no farming. Women help with the hunting and men help with the kids.

Despite being sedentary, anthropologists attribute their balanced sex roles to the fact that women traditionally build the huts, and have something kind of like property rights over them. They have a little bit of polygamy, but it is rare. (Also, they are sometimes treated horribly by political neighbors to the point of being hunted as food. It seems messed up to mention them as "examples for science" without also mentioning their actual interests as human beings.)

I resent the implication that I am making an appeal to nature. However egalitarian and pleasant our nomadic ancestors' lives may have been, I have no desire to imitate them. The best that evolutionary psychology can do is identify certain biological predilections; it cannot and should not attempt to justify them.

"Appeal to nature" is a named fallacy because is super super common, and I didn't even say you were committing it, I said "there would be incentives" to use certain evidence if anyone was going to. Even if you're not committing the bias, lots of the people you're reading probably do. When I notice "low hanging fallacy fruit" its seems useful to call it out so as to note the possible influence on everyone who reads it... it's like verbally pointing out poison oak when you're hiking, just to be safe.

Please slow down on the resentment! Seriously, you even quoted my smiley but got defensive anyway!

I'm not trying to insult you. I'm trying to figure out where you're coming from and help you see where I'm coming from, so we can both get a better handle on the truth while trying to ensure that our writing has good epistemic effects on the audience at the same time :-)

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T07:14:53.834Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In additioned to teageegeepea's points, the Mbuti (who were in the original link I provided that was criticized for having no "nomadic foragers") have villages but no farming. Women help with the hunting and men help with the kids.

They also engage in trade with nearby agricultural tribes for all kinds of stuff. And once you have stuff, you need a place to put it. And then you start to make a big deal about how it's your stuff and not anyone else's, and then you're not living in the kind of egalitarian forager band that defined the evolutionary environment.

Please slow down on the resentment! Seriously, you even quoted my smiley but got defensive anyway!

I'm resentful of smilies :D (Disclaimer: this is a self-deprecating joke about my own grumpiness.)

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-07-25T04:37:31.744Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

According to Jane Jacobs, cities preceded agriculture. In "Before the Dawn" Wade seems to agree with that theory, as there is evidence that people lived in settled areas for a surprisingly long time without becoming agriculturalists. I was surprised how late agriculture emerged in Japan.

A notable example of a group of sedentary hunter-gatherers that American readers may have heard about it middle school are the native americans of the northwest, who relied on the large amounts of available salmon nearby and had "potlatches" featuring the conspicuous destruction of expensive goods.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-25T07:25:30.513Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Jane Jacobs is an urban planner and an economist. While that does not mean that she is wrong, I am not terribly inclined to believe her theory in the absence of any sort of evidence; so far as I can tell, the only justification she offers is a thought experiment. Absent something convincing one way or the other, I'm inclined to consider which came first an open question.

Wikipedia cites Japan as having some form of primitive agriculture contemporaneously with the earliest settlements, but its reliability is, as ever, uncertain.

I'm not sure how fishing fits into all of this; it may be an important exception to the general trend.

In any case, unless settlements preceded agriculture by more than a couple millenia (which Jacobs doesn't seem to claim), anatomically modern humans were still nomads for 95% of their history and nomadic foragers are still our best model of the evolutionary environment.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-07-25T07:33:41.844Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Jane Jacobs was a writer and activist who did a lot to oppose urban renewal. I suppose you could argue that there were some sorts of urban planning she liked (mixed use, pedestrian-friendly) but on the whole, she supported bottom-up social networks.

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-07-25T19:22:26.721Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My "Jane Jacobs" link was to Overcoming Bias, where it was suggested (by someone other than Jacobs) that sedentary communities preceded agriculture by up to 3000 years, which I suppose would fit your "couple millenia).

Your Jomon link said that their pottery is evidence of sedentary living and described its origin as Mesolithic, or "Middle Stone Age" and preceding the Neolithic of agriculture. It also said they were hunter-gatherers and fishermen. It describes them as having "some of the highest densities known for foraging populations", though noting that Pacific Americans were similarly high.

When humans left Africa they seem to have hugged the southeast coastline. We can expect that they had boats since they were able to reach Australia and the polynesian islands. So I think fishing was pretty important. Cavalli-Sforza writes of pre-Jomon Japan "A major source of food in those pre-agricultural times came from fishing, then as now, and this would have limited for ecological reasons the area of expansion to the coastline".

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-07-26T04:38:18.105Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

While I agree the evidence is somewhat sparse, I think this is more of an issue of ease-of-reading versus rigor, and I think you've struck a reasonable balance.

I think the central thesis of this is, "The 'classic' view of ev-bio/psych that is modeled on the male earner, female caretaker family structure is probably wrong." If that's the case, your argument and evidence seem fairly solid. If you're going so far as to argue some other specific structure, then you're a bit short on evidence. There is an odd tendency to think that 1955 is the paradigm of human society, when it is decidedly an outlier.

I'm admittedly biased. Ever since I read about the history of marriage, I've suspected that the "History is just like 1950's" view is extremely flawed. Even in agricultural societies, mating was not really determined by individuals, but by their families. Cheating was probably relatively infrequent given the control exercised over women and the difficulty of cheating in a small village without lights available in the evening (as opposed to a large city).

I think this is an excellent post promoting an interesting topic, and I expect it is seeing relatively few upvotes because it runs contrary to many people's cherished beliefs.

comment by arfle · 2010-07-26T22:06:13.666Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

As a rural sort, I'd like to make the point that the full moon is bright enough to read by, and to see some colours.

Townies think the night is dark because they're dazzled by street lights and cars and never have working night vision.

In the absence of artificial light, it only gets truly dark when you can't see the moon or sun.

And even where I grew up, there was always enough light in the sky that the galaxy was difficult to see. Go somewhere truly out of the way and it's like a shining belt all across the sky. That's what real human night vision is like.

From "Sense and Sensibility", by Jane Austen:

"[Sir John Middleton] had been to several families that morning, in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight, and every body was full of engagements."

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-07-27T19:49:40.661Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I suppose, since this got 5 upvotes, that it isn't just a random non-sequitur. But it looks like one to me.

comment by Kingreaper · 2010-07-29T13:01:33.811Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to be a response to:

Cheating was probably relatively infrequent given the control exercised over women and the difficulty of cheating in a small village without lights available in the evening (as opposed to a large city).

The point Arfle is making seems to me to be that there is plenty of light available in small villages at night; on nights close to the full moon at least.

Personally, I'm not sure that light would be considered useful in successful infidelity anyway, wouldn't darker conditions be preferred?

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-07-29T13:28:18.408Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I'm not sure that light would be considered useful in successful infidelity anyway, wouldn't darker conditions be preferred?

Not if it's so dark that you can't walk around outside. Infidelity during the evening requires, at a minimum, that one of the people involved walk to the others residence without getting lost or injured.

comment by Kingreaper · 2010-07-29T13:48:30.305Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Not if it's so dark that you can't walk around outside.

Walking a short route that you know well is possible even in pitch black. I have, on a couple of occasions, had reason to test this myself, and certainly blind people have reason to test it very often.

With starlight to silhouette certain landmarks the possible distance would be much increased, and need for familiarity decreased.

comment by gwern · 2010-07-29T14:05:47.805Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Indeed, it's possible to walk and even bike by starlight or less. I had a bad habit at RIT of biking through the woods by the mess hall late at night; there is no illumination on the footpath and even the stars were hard to see. I could do it without injury because I did it so often.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-27T20:54:37.928Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

arfle was illustrating the problem with generalizing about the experiences of our ancestors from our own experiences. (Or so I gather.) Any theory that assumes that the past couple centuries are like the human evolutionary environment in any way is deeply flawed.

I (and Ryan and Jethá) would go further and say that the problem really applies to a timeframe closer to a hundred centuries than two, but the idea is the same.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-07-28T03:15:20.155Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, that sounds reasonable.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-27T16:46:52.860Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Who posts on LW and cherishes traditional 1950s establishment beliefs about human sexuality?

comment by Psychohistorian · 2010-07-27T22:40:04.549Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Cherishing" those beliefs is quite distinct from holding those beliefs. Even pickup artists operate off of a framework that assumes a fundamental male-earner plus female-nurturer social structure, which is just wrong, since humans were typically tribal and had more extensive social networks than nuclear families. Whether or not people like that system does not relate to whether they think it is of historical/evolutionary significance.

comment by lix · 2010-07-23T15:41:32.121Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's always puzzled me that evolutionary psychologists only seem interested in relating human social behavior to that of other apes, and therefore can only see the alternatives cited of monogamy or polygyny.

Looking more broadly at animal social systems, there are many other taxa that typically form strong pair bonds, with biparental care, complex social networks outside the pair, jealous mate-guarding males, occasional threesomes where the alpha shows varying degrees of tolerance for the beta, and numerous secret affairs by both sexes. It's called social monogamy, and it's associated across species with evolution of extraordinarily large brains, creative problem solving, tool use, and language-like behaviors. Many people think this happens because the social monogamy situation creates intense social selection, which becomes a runaway process until countered by natural selection.

The animals that do this are mostly birds, though, and I guess psychologists are not interested in them. It's hard enough to get acceptance for comparing humans to apes; comparing humans to sparrows isn't going to win you any friends.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T16:16:35.562Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You:

It's always puzzled me that evolutionary psychologists only seem interested in relating human social behavior to that of other apes, and therefore can only see the alternatives cited of monogamy or polygyny.

Me, citing Ryan and Jethá:

Among chimpanzees, ovulating females mate, on average, from six to eight times per day, and they are often eager to respond to the mating invitations of any and all males in the group.

While gorillas are polygynous and gibbons are monogamous, the other apes (which are, as has been pointed out, more closely related to humans) do not fit either description in the slightest. The problem isn't that evolutionary psychologists look at apes and use them as models of human behavior; the problem is that they look at apes and come up with implausible reasons why humans are different.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-07-23T16:37:28.109Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

A bit off topic: What I'm really confused about is why Bonobos and Chims evolved so differently despite living in similar environments, being closley related and they aren't that isolated from each other either.

Does anyone know of any interesting papers on this?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T17:03:17.855Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The best I can come up with is this article identifying the timeframe of divergence; I too would be interested in scholarship on the evolutionary pressures responsible. The only factor I'm aware of is the Congo River, which divides the habitats of the two species and may have split their populations. (Neither can swim.)

comment by sexatdawn · 2010-07-24T11:41:30.923Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

You've got a good conversation going here. Thanks. Primatologist Richard Wranham has proposed that two related factors contributed to the diverging bonobo/chimp behavior: — far more plentiful food in the bonobo range than in the chimp range and, — chimps compete with gorillas for some of their food sources, while bonobos are isolated from gorillas (and chimps).

This hypothesis would seem to support our argument, in that we find that food supply was generally plentiful for prehistoric populations (with occasional crises), whereas for post-ag populations, food scarcity was a constant problem (as demonstrated by skeletal evidence).

Chris Ryan (co-author of Sex at Dawn)

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-07-25T18:36:28.459Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Welcome to LessWrong!

I hope you decide to stay a while.

comment by teageegeepea · 2010-07-25T04:44:54.837Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Pedantic correction: his name is Richard Wrangham with a 'g'. The book is "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origin of Human Violence", co-authored with Dale Peterson. I have a post on it here.

Wrangham has another book, "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human", which theorizes that the increased calories resulting from food (particularly meat) preparation allowed us to reduce our gut size and increase our brain size, along with introducing pair-bonding. He discusses it in this diavlog.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-07-23T06:26:07.634Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I also saw the mention of Sex at Dawn in Savage Love and was intrigued. Great post, and I'm looking forward to reading the future ones. I wish I could vote this up more than once.

I'm wondering how this line of thinking would deal with studies that look at human behavior in many different cultures: I know that David Buss in particular has done some survey studies using cultures all over the world, suggesting that social norms don't have much to do with male/female differences in sexuality.

comment by tpc · 2010-07-29T12:10:35.046Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Wrongbot, I wanted to note a disparity between what you say here:

The most recent common ancestor [chimpanzees] share with humans lived somewhere between 3 million and 800,000 years ago.

and what that Wikipedia article on bonobos says twice:

The chimpanzee line split from the last common ancestor shared with humans approximately six to seven million years ago.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-29T16:24:15.126Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yup, it looks like the consensus is around 6 million. I think I confused the human/chimpanzee split with the chimpanzee/bonobo split, which did seem to happen in that more recent timeframe.

Thanks for pointing this out; I've edited my post to reflect the correct figure.

comment by dclayh · 2010-07-23T19:26:49.068Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

FYI, Dan Savage's podcast, Episode 194, has an interview with Christopher Ryan about the book and its relevance to modern humans.

comment by Eneasz · 2010-07-27T21:49:59.186Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In light of many of the negative comments and downvotes, I wanted to express thanks for this post, and I hope you continue the sequence.

I think people delude themselves as to how monogamous they actually are (monogamous-but-had-a-fling-once is NOT monogamous. Monogamous-except-that-three-month-period-we-were-broken-up is NOT monogamous. Generally, even monogamous-with-first-spouse,then-monogamous-with-the-new-spouse isn't considered ACTUAL monogamy. And certainly monogamous-by-circumstance shouldn't really count )

And furthermore, I suspect that the sort of group-mating/iving outlined by Ryan and Jetha could/did provide a real-world mechanic for actual group-selection.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-07-27T21:54:30.245Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

even monogamous-with-first-spouse, then-monogamous-with-the-new-spouse isn't considered ACTUAL monogamy.

Considered? Who is the arbiter of such things?

comment by Clippy · 2010-07-27T22:00:36.987Z · score: 4 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I'm the arbiter of such things.

comment by Eneasz · 2010-07-27T22:23:25.567Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Very well, perhaps that was a bit too strongly worded. Allow me to rephrase that as "there is debate as to whether serial-monogamy constitutes monogamy or is a different form of polyamory"

comment by ata · 2010-07-27T22:58:00.394Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

But is that disagreement about anything more than definitions?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-27T22:27:35.394Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You shouldn't need group selection to explain that sort of thing. (And I'd be very, very suspicious if you did.) Kin selection should be more than enough.

For what it's worth, anthropologists generally consider relationships to be monogamous if they involve paired-living, long-term association, or joint parenting. Sexual fidelity is not a criterion.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T05:51:10.020Z · score: 1 (23 votes) · LW · GW

In what sense could Malthus possibly be considered wrong?
I'm a bit confused here. Are you actually denying the theory of evolution in general?

I'm not generally a fan of evolutionary psychology, I'm somewhat uncertain about gender differences in libido (my priors massively favor such differences, but the evidence moves me away from them, leaving me confused), and I'm moderately optimistic about polyamory, but between bad writing style, blatantly stupid conclusions and incoherent argument I wish I could vote this down more than once.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T06:32:50.709Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

but between bad writing style, blatantly stupid conclusions and incoherent argument I wish I could vote this down more than once.

Could you qualify those criticisms? What do you dislike about my writing style? Which conclusions are blatantly stupid? Which arguments do you find incoherent?

comment by Emile · 2010-07-23T15:40:27.385Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I found that there wasn't a sufficiently clear distinction between when an argument was part of the "standard model", when it was made in the book, and when it was your opinion.

Also, this sentence:

There are four major research areas supporting the standard narrative that Sex at Dawn identifies in Chapter 3 as underpinned by Flintstoned reasoning, which collectively lead to the conclusion that "Darwin says your mother's a whore." (Ryan and Jethá, 50)

... is very confusing, and trying to be witty doesn't help. Just look at the grammar:

A supports B that C identifies as underpinned by D, which leads to the conclusion that "E says F" (G).

I mean, what the fuck? Is the conclusion that "Darwin says your mother's a whore." or "your mother's a whore."?

I understood the sentence after three or four rereadings, but I certainly wouldn't put it in the hall of fame of "clear and concise writing".

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T16:47:56.616Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Not my best work, I agree. I've edited the post to make that section clearer.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:35:31.604Z · score: -7 (15 votes) · LW · GW

What Cousin It said for starters. Really, almost every adjective that I could apply to the post as a whole is negative, every description I could make of it, etc. There's just no reasoning there.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T15:03:59.928Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

For what it's worth, I upvoted Cousin It's comment and, having slept on it, agree that the way I structured the posts in this sequence was an error; I will avoid quarantining large piles of evidence in this fashion should I write such a series in the future.

Unlike Cousin It, your criticism provided no information that would allow me to avoid offending you in the future. I suppose signaling your distaste has been satisfying, but you may want to consider being nicer; given your support for that notion, I'm really quite surprised to see this hostility in the first place.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T15:55:04.248Z · score: 0 (16 votes) · LW · GW

I don't actually feel hostile. I'm not offended at all. I don't think you are being dishonest, hostile, lazy, or in any sense a jerk. What I feel is a desire for you to practice critical thinking somewhere with lower standards (and especially by reading discussions where people actually change their mind, admittedly those are difficult to find) before posting here. I'd like you to actually learn to think and write more skillfully and then come back.

My comment was lazy and unhelpful. It deserves downvotes (given that opinion, should I just delete it?). As noted though, what CousinIt said is only the tip of the iceberg. I really don't want to try to explain all of what I think is wrong with it.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T22:04:39.055Z · score: 5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

If I am actually bad enough at thinking and writing that I am a net loss to this community, as you seem to be implying, I do not see why this is so. If I don't know what you are requesting that I fix, how should I know when to come back?

Your repeated refusal to justify your claims strikes me as a form of logical rudeness. When I look at my total karma and the average karma of posts and comments I've made, I see that there is generally some level of appreciation for my contributions to this website. Why do you disagree with the consensus strongly enough to ask me to leave?

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-07-24T21:41:42.126Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

No, I don't think there's room to consider a refusal to take part in a debate a form of logical rudeness. The purpose of logical rudeness is to hide the absence of a counter-argument: openly refusing to offer one is a different thing.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-24T21:58:08.698Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I would think that if one were not interested in taking part in a debate, one wouldn't start one.

Is it really unobjectionable to make a strong attack on a position and refuse to explain why?

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-07-24T22:28:19.270Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

WrongBot:

Is it really unobjectionable to make a strong attack on a position and refuse to explain why?

It can be justified in certain circumstances. Sometimes I see a terribly wrong argument, but providing a satisfactory counter-argument would require much more time and space than I have available. In such situations, I will sometimes write a reply that the argument is wrong, but proving this would require more effort that I can realistically afford, so that the author should take it on authority and good faith that he needs to reconsider his position (and perhaps do some more learning before he's competent to tackle the problem constructively).

(This is not meant to imply anything more specific about this concrete dispute -- I am merely giving a general answer to the question.)

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-07-24T22:03:40.850Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Is it really unobjectionable to make a strong attack on a position and refuse to explain why?

The strength of the attack should be evaluated according to evidence contained in the attack. If it's a statement from authority, then not very much evidence, depending on who states what on which topic. Still better than no input, but often not by much.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-24T16:01:55.283Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have time for a justification, take it for what it is. That may be rude, but it is definitely not analogous to what is discussed in the post you linked to. I suppose though, in terms of justifications, that fact is pretty close to what I'm thinking of. You seem to implicitly make analogies which are simply wrong, to do it routinely, and to do it in a manner which would be time-consuming to correct. I'd rather Karma ask for me, but I think people are far too generous with Karma in general, not just with you.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-24T21:05:16.338Z · score: 3 (11 votes) · LW · GW

The post on logical rudeness identifies the following subtypes of the phenomenon:

  • Switching between two arguments whenever headway is being made against one, such that neither can ever be refuted because the topic is changed every time that becomes a danger.
  • Suddenly weakening a claim without acknowledging that it is any sort of concession.
  • Offering a non-true rejection.

Eliezer also identifies the opposite of logical rudeness, to which he aspires:

I stick my neck out so that it can be chopped off if I'm wrong, and when I stick my neck out it stays stuck out, and if I have to withdraw it I'll do so as a visible concession. I may parry - and because I'm human, I may even parry when I shouldn't - but I at least endeavor not to dodge. Where I plant my standard, I have sent an invitation to capture that banner; and I'll stand by that invitation.

Saying (as you have) that "you're stupid and bad at thinking and I won't say why but it's so bad that I want you to go away" is a form of logical rudeness I would generally identify as

  • Making strong claims, stating that they are backed up by strong evidence, and then refusing to provide that evidence.

Like the subtypes Eliezer describes, it's a form of motivated arguing that makes losing the argument impossible. That doesn't sound like any sort of neck-sticking-out I'm familiar with. You have not invited me to capture your banner; you have hidden it.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-25T06:34:53.090Z · score: -3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not making an argument. I'm making a request, or stating a fact about my opinion if you prefer.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-07-26T04:58:24.030Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

The opinion "this is stupid" is correctly expressed with a downvote. The opinion "this is so stupid it requires multiple downvotes" is correctly expressed by convincing others to add their downvotes to yours. Most of us didn't come here to read unthought personal opinions.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-27T07:03:38.861Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Valid point.

comment by Blueberry · 2010-07-24T16:39:32.070Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you disagree with the consensus strongly enough to ask me to leave?

Apparently your post hits a nerve with some people here.

comment by RobinZ · 2010-07-23T19:23:02.928Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

(given that opinion, should I just delete it?).

Not as a rule. The obvious, minor reason is that it provides context for the discussion following it. The less obvious, major reason (one which doesn't apply here, I think, but which deserves frequent mention) is that revising history is liable to cause massive unpleasantness and reputational damage.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-07-24T21:38:39.879Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've been known to edit comments to say essentially "OK I take it back".

comment by RobinZ · 2010-07-25T18:06:34.670Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Proper protocol, I believe, is to insert an "[edit: disclaimer]" note.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-07-26T06:30:28.651Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, absolutely it's best to let the original contents stand when you add such a remark, yes.

comment by Tenek · 2010-07-23T17:41:51.637Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

How is WrongBot going to learn to think and write more skillfully by moving to a place that's collectively worse at doing so?

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-24T15:55:48.043Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Presumably, however others do. One can learn thinking by observation, and we're surely not the people to look to for writing skill, except possibly if one simply means logical care and analytical clarity as one's definition of writing skill.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T06:19:28.919Z · score: -7 (13 votes) · LW · GW

MichaelVassar:

In what sense could Malthus possibly be considered wrong?

Ryan and Jetha, 154:

Malthus based his estimates of human reproductive rates on the recorded increase of (European) population in North America in the previous 150 years (1650-1800). He concluded that the colonial population had doubled every twenty-five years or so, which he took to be a reasonable estimate of the rates of human population growth in general.

Robin Hanson:

In the roughly 2 million years our ancestors lived as hunters and gatherers, the population rose from about 10,000 protohumans to about 4 million modern humans. If, as we believe, the growth pattern during this era was fairly steady, then the population must have doubled about every quarter million years, on average.

So that's Malthus off by a factor of 10,000 on human population growth rates. On that basis, I'm quite comfortable accepting the conclusion that his theory of population growth was wrong.

Are you actually denying the theory of evolution in general?

No. If I were, I doubt I would be reviewing a book about evolutionary psychology.

ETA: You may want to review r/K selection theory.

(I should also note that I pulled these citations from the endnotes of chapter 11 of Sex at Dawn.)

comment by Emile · 2010-07-23T06:35:52.461Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I see no contradiction between those claims, and am surprised that you see one.

Malthus said that human population would catch up with available resources, and since the growth in resources was slower than the growth of population, and to estimate that, we can look at how fast population grows when there are very little constraints on resources, as in North America recently colonized by Europeans. When you look at population growth in the last two million years, you're seeing population growth with resource constraints, and yes it's much slower, which is what Malthus is saying. It certainly doesn't prove him wrong.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T06:46:53.929Z · score: -4 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Which resource constraints? Food? Prior to the appearance of agriculture, human fossils show almost no signs of malnutrition; afterwards, malnutrition is rampant.

Furthermore, you can't look at 17th century Europeans and draw conclusions about hunter-gatherers. For example, hunter-gatherers typically breastfeed for 5-6 years, spacing out births far more than Europeans who had access to dairy animals. They also have less body-fat, pushing the onset of menstruation back to the late teens.

Like Malthus, you are looking at post-agricultural societies and assuming that pre-agricultural societies operate in precisely the same way. This is thoroughly and completely wrong.

(Again, I am drawing from Sex at Dawn's 11th chapter.)

comment by Emile · 2010-07-23T08:32:11.914Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Like Malthus, you are looking at post-agricultural societies and assuming that pre-agricultural societies operate in precisely the same way. This is thoroughly and completely wrong.

I bloody well am not.

I'm just saying that the numbers you show (population growth in 150 years of recently-colonized US; population growth in two million years of prehistoric humanity) do not show malthus wrong. Sure there are some things that Malthus didn't know, and his model of reality was probably less accurate than ours. If you went back in time and showed him those numbers, and those numbers only, he would shrug and say "so what?".

So this:

So that's Malthus off by a factor of 10,000 on human population growth rates. On that basis, I'm quite comfortable accepting the conclusion that his theory of population growth was wrong.

.... is unwarranted.

comment by b1shop · 2010-07-23T09:10:26.241Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't want to say Malthus is wrong. His conclusions flow naturally from his assumptions.

Perhaps both sides of this spat could simply say Malthus is irrelevant when his assumptions (positive relationship between wealth and birth rates, population grows faster than economy) don't hold?

comment by gwern · 2010-07-23T10:07:49.331Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

simply say Malthus is irrelevant when his assumptions (positive relationship between wealth and birth rates, population grows faster than economy) don't hold?

This is the correct view; his argument is practically deductive, and the only way around it is to take one of his escape holes: people collectively choosing a higher standard of living rather than offspring. The real questions we should be discussing are:

  1. why does the demographic transition exist?
  2. will it last indefinitely?
  3. if it willn't, when does it end? And will it reverse itself to high-fertility and either a population increase or a decrease in standard of living?
  4. What repercussions does the end of the transition signal?

Question 4 leads us right into Robin Hanson's crack of a future dawn and Dream Time scenario.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:37:20.941Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Applied to the argument in the post, the correct view is simply that Malthus was right.
Applied to understanding of Malthus and Darwin in general I agree with your comment.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-07-23T16:40:21.972Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The demographic transition is temporary unless natural selection can't influence desire for offspring. Hanson I think makes a similar argument as to why the future in his view is probably sort of Malthusian.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T09:07:08.533Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Sure there are some things that Malthus didn't know, and his model of reality was probably less accurate than ours.

Is there some meaning of "wrong" which does not involve inaccurate models?

Malthus claimed that human population doubled every 25 years unless limited in some way by the amount of available food.

So if there had been some span of time during which the human population was not limited in any way by a scarcity of available food and did not double at that rate, then that would be evidence that directly contradicts his theory.

There is, in fact, such a span of time. As I have pointed out, for two million years of human existence, there is no substantial evidence of famine. And yet the population did not double at Malthus's proposed rate. Or ten times his proposed rate. Or a hundred times his proposed rate. In what way is he not wrong?

comment by knb · 2010-07-23T09:40:44.868Z · score: 11 (13 votes) · LW · GW

That is a flawed argument, WrongBot. Visible signs of starvation aren't necessary to assume humans were living along Malthusian limits. Rates of violence were extremely high amongst hunter gatherers (homicide was the most common cause of death). According to Stephen Pinker, 20-60% of males were murdered. This shouldn't surprise those of us who understand human nature, people will gladly start killing each other before they let themselves starve to death.

In addition, females menstruating less is a natural response to malthusian conditions. The malthusian limits wouldn't look like hungry bodies, it would look like fewer pregnant women per year, and more murders.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T10:01:25.916Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Ryan and Jetha have a lot to say about Steven Pinker, and none of it is kind. I suspect you will have your objections answered in my next post.

comment by MichaelVassar · 2010-07-23T14:41:07.008Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That probably tells me all I need to know about Ryan and Jetha. I'll read them, but if they dislike Pinker's conclusions rather than his writing style they probably don't like rationality much as I understand the term, as he's the only mainstream academic I'm aware of who visibly demonstrates the full suite of traditional rationalist virtues in essentially all of his writing. As you might guess, I'm a big fan of traditional rationalist virtues, but as you might not know unless you have seen me speak recently, I'm also a fan of those who energetically reject them, so this should be fun.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T16:29:31.274Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Their primary issue with him is not his writing style or his conclusions: it's that he blatantly misrepresents anthropological data to support his bottom-line conclusions.

For example, the way he claims that "20-60% of males were murdered" in hunter-gatherer societies in order to support the superhappy conclusion that human societies are becoming less violent over time.

comment by HughRistik · 2010-07-23T17:19:18.806Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For example, the way he claims that "20-60% of males were murdered" in hunter-gatherer societies in order to support the superhappy conclusion that human societies are becoming less violent over time.

Wait, what exactly is wrong with this claim? If large percentages of the male population were murdered that are no longer being murdered, how is that not "less violent"?

If you're going to address that point in your next post, then no rush.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T17:28:40.571Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'll be covering this in the next post, but the very short version is that it isn't his reasoning, it's that the 20-60% number is derived in an incredibly misleading way; there is substantial anthropological and fossil evidence that he is off by at least an order of magnitude.

comment by knb · 2010-07-24T18:29:57.391Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Much less than 2% to 6% of modern people are murdered. If, as you claim, the numbers were an order of magnitude lower than Pinker's claim, the number of homicide deaths would still be an order of magnitude higher than the current global average of about 8 per 100,000 per year.

ETA: Thats a good point FAWS, thanks. I changed it.

comment by FAWS · 2010-07-24T18:41:53.754Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

8 per 100,000 would be per year, not per lifetime. Assuming an average life span of 70 years that would be about 0.56%, just about one order of magnitude lower.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-24T21:14:52.790Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Me:

there is substantial anthropological and fossil evidence that he is off by at least an order of magnitude.

It was a one sentence comment. I'm starting to worry about this community's ability to argue in good faith.

(This criticism is not necessarily directed at you, knb; it's not a preposterously unlikely mistake, and I know I've made errors of this type. It's their frequency on LessWrong that's starting to get to me.)

comment by JanetK · 2010-07-23T09:29:43.002Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I am having difficulty with this thread. As I understand biology:

  1. all organisms (not just humans) tend to be able to produce more offspring then the environment can support

  2. those individuals that produce the most living (and reproducing) offspring have their genes in higher frequency in the population

  3. therefore natural selection works and populations evolve

Both Darwin and Wallace crystallized their ideas on evolve after reading Malthus. It doesn't matter if Malthus was wrong on some minor points - his general idea is one of the foundations of evolution by natural selection. If you throw out Malthus' general idea then you throw out natural selection. You cannot have it both ways.

Also, the idea that famine did not occur throughout human history is naive.

comment by gwern · 2010-07-23T10:02:08.350Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Malthus claimed that human population doubled every 25 years unless limited in some way by the amount of available food.

So if there had been some span of time during which the human population was not limited in any way by a scarcity of available food and did not double at that rate, then that would be evidence that directly contradicts his theory.

Are you reading Malthus, or just listening to the little caricature of Malthus in your head and the popular media? Your own link doesn't even say that!

"In the United States of America, where the means of subsistence have been more ample, the manners of the people more pure, and consequently the checks to early marriages fewer, than in any of the modern states of Europe, the population has been found to double itself in twenty-five years."

Basic grammar tells me that Malthus enumerates 2 checks on the population, only one of which has anything to do with food.

Earlier, Malthus writes:

"I think it will be allowed, that no state has hitherto existed (at least that we have any account of) where the manners were so pure and simple, and the means of subsistence so abundant, that no check whatever has existed to early marriages, among the lower classes, from a fear of not providing well for their families, or among the higher classes, from a fear of lowering their condition in life. Consequently in no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom."

If you wish to not allow this, you need to prove both points: about means of subsistence being so abundant no fear exists, and about manners being pure and simple.

And more generally, you don't grapple with the most fundamental point: population growth can be exponential, and resource growth is not.

comment by Emile · 2010-07-23T15:14:19.428Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So if there had been some span of time during which the human population was not limited in any way by a scarcity of available food and did not double at that rate, then that would be evidence that directly contradicts his theory.

The key point here is "not limited in any way by a scarcity of available food".

The conversation went roughly like this

  • WrongBot: Malthus was wrong

  • MichaelVassar: what! why?

  • WrongBot: Well, here is evidence A (population growth data)

  • Emile: What? Evidence A is perfectly compatible with what Malthus said!

  • WrongBot: There is also evidence B (no signs of malnutrition in hunter-gatherers, etc.).

What I'm saying is that Evidence A alone is not enough to say Malthus was wrong. And that if you went back in time and showed evidence A only to Malthus, he would shrug. Do you disagree with this?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T16:36:21.538Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Evidence A without Evidence B is insufficient to wholly refute Malthus, yes, though I will point out that he predicts cycles of growth and starvation that are inconsistent with the slow and steady changes in population that seem to have characterized the spread of prehistoric humans. (There were massive die-offs at several points, but what evidence is available ties those points to natural disasters, not famine.)

comment by JanetK · 2010-07-23T19:58:21.961Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why do you separate natural disasters from possible causes of famine?

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T20:41:51.015Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Because Malthus's theory doesn't (so far as I'm aware) discuss discontinuous decreases in the available food supply.

But you are right that much of the devastation wrought by natural disasters is due to a shrunken food supply.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-07-23T18:50:28.814Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If I understand correctly, you're saying that prehistorical hunter-gatherers avoided the Malthusian equilibrium by practicing a collective strategy of restraint from excessive breeding. But even if such a situation came to pass, it could never be a stable equilibrium over long periods of time. In such a situation, individuals who "cheated" by breeding above average and passing the same characteristic to their offspring would have caused their descendants to spread like wildfire, completely overwhelming those who restrained their breeding.

There is a general principle operating here akin to the old saying that nature abhors vacuum -- namely, any population of reproducible organisms abhors a state where additional resources exist that could support further population growth all up to the Malthusian limit.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-23T21:15:53.041Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In such a situation, individuals who "cheated" by breeding above average and passing the same characteristic to their offspring would have caused their descendants to spread like wildfire, completely overwhelming those who restrained their breeding.

What simple adaptation do you propose to allow individuals to improve their average number of offspring, given that breastfeeding duration and menstruation-onset are traits of present-day foraging societies?

Or, for that matter, how do you explain the observed low population growth? Human fossils from that era don't show signs of chronic malnutrition, and present-day foraging societies generally don't have problems acquiring food.

There is a general principle operating here akin to the old saying that nature abhors vacuum -- namely, any population of reproducible organisms abhors a state where additional resources exist that could support further population growth all up to the Malthusian limit.

This principle ignores the necessity of a mechanism for highly-variable population growth. Absent radical environmental changes (e.g. agriculture), such a mechanism has not been demonstrated.

comment by Vladimir_M · 2010-07-23T22:29:09.852Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

WrongBot:

What simple adaptation do you propose to allow individuals to improve their average number of offspring, given that breastfeeding duration and menstruation-onset are traits of present-day foraging societies?

Anything that makes people more phyloprogenitive will do the trick. In the long run, even behavioral mutations are conceivable, but cultural changes can also have a dramatic effect, and they act nearly instantaneously on evolutionary timescales. You yourself provide one possible answer: in the situation you describe, a mere cultural change that would shorten the breastfeeding period would, ceteris paribus, boost the fertility significantly.

Or, for that matter, how do you explain the observed low population growth? Human fossils from that era don't show signs of chronic malnutrition, and present-day foraging societies generally don't have problems acquiring food.

Obviously, the most reasonable explanation for low population growth is that the foragers were in a Malthusian equilibrium. The Malthusian principle says only that some resource constraint will stop further population growth, not what exactly that constraint will be. Other commenters in this thread have already suggested scenarios that wouldn't necessarily leave too many emaciated corpses around.

The facts that early human populations: (1) expanded over vast continents, and (2) recovered from population bottleneck disasters imply that the potential for population growth was there, as far as the biological constraints on fertility are concerned. If local population growth wasn't happening through prolonged periods of time, it means that something was preventing it. The idea that it was stopped by humans somehow successfully coordinating to limit their fertility and avoid the tragedy of the commons strikes me as implausible to the point of absurdity, for the reasons already mentioned. There is no plausible way how such a state of affairs could have emerged, and even if it did, it could never be stable through any significant period of time.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-24T00:12:57.171Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If local population growth wasn't happening through prolonged periods of time, it means that something was preventing it. The idea that it was stopped by humans somehow successfully coordinating to limit their fertility and avoid the tragedy of the commons strikes me as implausible to the point of absurdity, for the reasons already mentioned.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Anything that makes people more phyloprogenitive will do the trick. In the long run, even behavioral mutations are conceivable, but cultural changes can also have a dramatic effect, and they act nearly instantaneously on evolutionary timescales. You yourself provide one possible answer: in the situation you describe, a mere cultural change that would shorten the breastfeeding period would, ceteris paribus, boost the fertility significantly.

Errr, yes, this happened. Approximately 10,000 years ago, in fact. Agriculture is a mere cultural change that shortened the breastfeeding period with a nearly instantaneous effect, by an evolutionary timescale.

The Malthusian principle says only that some resource constraint will stop further population growth, not what exactly that constraint will be.

Predation is not a resource constraint, yet it too halts population growth. The high rates of infant and maternal mortality that prevailed in all human societies prior to the past two centuries also limited population growth. Resource constraints, food or otherwise, are far from the sole determinant of population size.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-07-27T19:41:18.943Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In what sense could Malthus possibly be considered wrong?

My reaction also. Google "lottke volterra". The Lottke-Volterra equation is a well-accepted model for predator and prey populations. Remove predators from the equation, and you have Malthus.

Suppose Malthus were right. What would you see looking back over a 2 million year period? You wouldn't see 40 trillion people alive today. You'd see repeated cycles of boom-bust: Population growth, overpopulation, population crash.

If you could state how the observation would differ if Malthus were wrong vs. if Malthus were right, I might listen to you.

The way Malthus was wrong was in not observing that viruses and pathogenic bacteria are predators of humans.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-27T20:44:35.056Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose Malthus were right. What would you see looking back over a 2 million year period? You wouldn't see 40 trillion people alive today. You'd see repeated cycles of boom-bust: Population growth, overpopulation, population crash.

And this is not what we see! Please take note of the Hanson quote in my original.

If you could state how the observation would differ if Malthus were wrong vs. if Malthus were right, I might listen to you.

If Malthus were wrong, we could expect to see any number of things that don't involve growth-overpopulation-crash cycles. For example, we might see slow and steady population growth with very irregular population crashes which correspond with major natural disasters (which are responsible for sudden, large, discontinuous declines in the available food supply). In this particular scenario, we would expect to see very few human fossils that show signs of malnutrition. Whereas if Malthus had been right, we would expect to see much more fluctuation in population levels, and therefore a proportionally high number of human fossils with signs of malnutrition, because deadly famines would be proportionally more common.

And whether or not JanetK thinks I am naive, archaeologists have not found very many malnourished human fossils. Furthermore, if Malthus had been right, we should expect to see most modern forager tribes having at least occasional difficulties getting enough to eat. We should likewise see heavy fluctuation of prey animal populations in the vicinity of human hunter-gatherers.

The Lotka-Volterra equation may do a wonderful job of explaining simple predator-prey relationships, but it assumes exponential growth of the prey population, which is exactly what I'm disputing. [ETA: I took a closer look at the Wikipedia page and noticed that the LV equation also assumes that "the prey population finds ample food at all times." Removing predators from this equation doesn't give you Malthus. It gives you infinite growth forever.]

The way Malthus was wrong was in not observing that viruses and pathogenic bacteria are predators of humans.

Disease epidemics as we currently imagine them did not exist pre-agriculture. Small, widely-dispersed human populations can't support a sustainable population of bacteria or viruses. The rate of transmission is too low.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2010-07-28T01:30:14.673Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The Lotka-Volterra equation may do a wonderful job of explaining simple predator-prey relationships, but it assumes exponential growth of the prey population, which is exactly what I'm disputing.

I've got a book somewhere (small trade paperback, dull silver cover[1], title might be Life) which claims that no one has ever gotten those pretty predator-prey equations to cycle nicely in the real world, not even with two species of micro-organisms in a test tube.

The Wiki page for the equation didn't seem to mention real-world examples.

I'll update with more detail if I find the book.

[1] It's a shame amazon doesn't have searches based on the way people really remember books.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-28T02:29:27.073Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The Wikipedia page does mention the wolf and moose populations in Isle Royale National Park as its sole real-world example. The paper it cites, though, doesn't seem to find the LV equation to be among the most useful available models, which is a pretty bad sign for its actual descriptive power.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-07-28T02:39:17.884Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've got a book somewhere (small trade paperback, dull silver cover[1], title might be Life) which claims that no one has ever gotten those pretty predator-prey equations to cycle nicely in the real world, not even with two species of micro-organisms in a test tube.

With 3 species, the LK equation can become chaotic, so I wouldn't expect to be able to duplicate a real-world history even if the model were perfect.

Perhaps we could find a 2-species real-world LK case involving bacteria deep underground.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2010-07-28T02:30:07.558Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This source claims that some real life examples have actually done this correctly including the archetypal rabbit/lynx example.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-07-28T01:30:51.331Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted for your footnote :)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2010-07-28T02:26:04.906Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You'd see repeated cycles of boom-bust: Population growth, overpopulation, population crash.

And this is not what we see! Please take note of the Hanson quote in my original.

It isn't? What would we see that would be different? Do you expect to be able to pick out boom-bust cycles that occur in 3 or 4 generations, in a fossil record going back 2 million years?

In this particular scenario, we would expect to see very few human fossils that show signs of malnutrition. Whereas if Malthus had been right, we would expect to see much more fluctuation in population levels, and therefore a proportionally high number of human fossils with signs of malnutrition, because deadly famines would be proportionally more common.

This is an interesting point. You'd have to do the math to figure out how many malnourished fossils we would expect to find.

The Lotka-Volterra equation may do a wonderful job of explaining simple predator-prey relationships, but it assumes exponential growth of the prey population, which is exactly what I'm disputing.

Yes; which is why I mention the Lotka-Volterra equation, and its general acceptance by biologists, as evidence that you are wrong.

Disease epidemics as we currently imagine them did not exist pre-agriculture. Small, widely-dispersed human populations can't support a sustainable population of bacteria or viruses. The rate of transmission is too low.

Okay. You got me. Malthus was completely right pre-agriculture.

No, seriously. You just said that hunter-gatherers had no viruses or bacteria. Then why did they have immune systems?

Agricultural communities, and people with animals, and people living in towns, had progressively increasing numbers of parasites, and more dramatic boom-crash cycles, true.

The important point is that hunter-gatherers reached "carrying capacity" before humans even evolved; so you wouldn't expect to see exponential growth, ever. This is a general truth: Species don't exist at far-below-carrying-capacity levels, except after a population crash, or on introduction into a new environment. For a fair test of Malthus, you should look at the population growth on introducing a new species into an environment where it has no predators. The introduction of cane toads and rabbits into Australia would be perfect case studies. And, they show Malthus was right.

Also remember that carrying capacity increases with technology. It is not correct to assume that there was no growth in technology before agriculture! Some hunter-gatherers have thousands of impressive technological achievements. "Hunter-gatherer" is not a single level of technology. Just enumerating the number of different snares or traps in the repertoire of some 19th century Native Americans would get you to around 100 technological devices, none of which most college graduates would be able to invent independently. Tanning deer hide required 6 major technical innovations. Flintknapping is a skill similar to playing chess; it requires memorizing countless patterns of rock ledges and lumps, and predicting what will happen several moves ahead. Likewise tracking, weather prediction, and hunting. Basketweaving, cooking, firebuilding, making rope or thread, felting, dyeing, waterproofing, pottery, bow-making, flute-making, waging war - each of these involves a multitude of technological inventions that a modern-day genius would be hard-pressed to come up with on their own.

Anecdotal evidence suggests competition with other groups was the major limiting factor on first contact with Europeans in most of the now United States; while food was the major limiting factor in the far north (and starvation was extremely common).

I think you need to clarify what you mean when you say Malthus was wrong. Do you mean that population does not grow exponentially in the absence of predation or food or territory or other limitations? Then you are wrong. Do you mean that famine and population collapse is not the necessary outcome of reaching carrying capacity? Then you are right. "Carrying capacity" is harder to reach than it sounds, in the same way that running out of oil is hard. It is a limit that is a repulsor in configuration space; the closer you get to it, the harder it is to get any closer.

comment by WrongBot · 2010-07-28T02:54:12.121Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

PhilGoetz:

It isn't? What would we see that would be different? Do you expect to be able to pick out boom-bust cycles that occur in 3 or 4 generations, in a fossil record going back 2 million years?

WrongBot:

If Malthus were wrong, we could expect to see any number of things that don't involve growth-overpopulation-crash cycles. For example, we might see slow and steady population growth with very irregular population crashes which correspond with major natural disasters (which are responsible for sudden, large, discontinuous declines in the available food supply). In this particular scenario, we would expect to see very few human fossils that show signs of malnutrition. Whereas if Malthus had been right, we would expect to see much more fluctuation in population levels, and therefore a proportionally high number of human fossils with signs of malnutrition, because deadly famines would be proportionally more common.

Since I guess I wasn't sufficiently clear: each bust generation should contain a high percentage of individuals who die of starvation or are significantly malnourished during their childhood. For simplicity's sake I'll make an incredibly generous assumption that that percentage is 10%, though I'd expect it to be much higher in reality. If one in every four generations is a bust, then that's 2.5% of all humans in the past 2 million years whose skeletons would show significant signs of malnourishment. But the fossil record contains many fewer malnourished humans than that already conservative figure!

PhilGoetz:

Yes; which is why I mention the Lotka-Volterra equation, and its general acceptance by biologists, as evidence that you are wrong.

Please see the edit to my earlier post. The Lotka-Volterra equation assumes infinite food.

Please also see this link, which JoshuaZ posted. Key quote:

Are such cyclic systems common in Nature? No. How well does the model predict population changes in the real world? Not well, and some of its shortcomings are apparent.

PhilGoetz:

No, seriously. You just said that hunter-gatherers had no viruses or bacteria. Then why did they have immune systems?

Yeah, my bad. I stand by what I said about epidemics, but that bit is obviously wrong.

comment by jimrandomh · 2010-07-28T16:18:22.324Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think food shortages necessarily leave malnourished fossils behind. Two other things could happen: people could run out of stored food during winter and freeze to death; or people could detect a food shortage coming, and fight over supplies until the population is small enough to support.

comment by Emile · 2010-07-28T16:40:50.925Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes; which is why I mention the Lotka-Volterra equation, and its general acceptance by biologists, as evidence that you are wrong.

Please see the edit to my earlier post. The Lotka-Volterra equation assumes infinite food.

But do you understand how biologists use it, and for what uses they accept it? Or is your explanation "well, biologists are stupid, duh"?

If you're going to go around saying the methods and conclusions in a particular domain are wrong, you need a quite deep understanding of that domain. So far, you haven't given that impression in your posts on Malthus.