Saturday, August 10, 2013

The surveillance state from an evolutionary perspective

Sometimes confusion can give rise to clarity in the most astonishing ways.  Yesterday I read a tweet from Richard Dawkins:
Aliens knowledge. Same fundamental physical constants, but they may, unlike us, have worked out why they have the values they do.
In retrospect it is obvious that the antecedent for "they" is "fundamental physical constants."  But that's not how I read it.  I read it with "Aliens" as the antecedent, and hence a different meaning for the word "values."

Why did I read it this way?  Because I actually met Richard Dawkins last December on a cruise to Antarctica and had the opportunity to have some extended discussions with him, so I happened to know that he actually *is* puzzled over why humans have the values they have.  Specifically, he is puzzled over how anyone could be religious in general, and Muslim in particular, which he believes has a lot more of (choose your favorite term for whatever it is about religions that makes them bad) than other religions do.  So I thought that was the sentiment he was expressing.

It was a sentiment I have always found puzzling because I believe that we humans (well, some humans) do understand why we humans have the values (in the sociological sense) that we have, and that this understanding comes in no small measure from Dawkins's own work.  When we discussed it on the cruise I never really got a satisfactory (to me) answer out of him so I decided to ask him about it again.

Surprisingly (in retrospect) his answer was not to point out that I had misinterpreted his tweet, but rather to answer the question as I posed it, and to point me to this 2006 essay entitled "Atheists for Jesus."  (I will post his entire reply as soon as I get his permission to do so.)  In that essay, he advocates not for Jesus's theology (of course) but for his sociology
What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so.  [However, f]rom a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged - which is the purpose of my article.
But there's a problem:
Human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection.
How does he know this?  He doesn't say.  He just takes it as a self-evident fact.  And it certainly does seem intuitively plausible that super-niceness is not an evolutionarily stable strategy. But if there's one thing that the study of evolutionary biology teaches us it is that intuition is not always an effective guide.  Peacock's tails, for example, would seem intuitively like something evolution ought to have weeded out long ago.  They serve no apparent practical purpose.  They cost energy.  They make the peacock less maneuverable and hence more vulnerable to predators.  So why do they exist?

The answer is not, as I first assumed, that peacocks have no predators.  They do.  So why do peacocks have those ridiculous tails?  It's because they do serve a practical purpose, though not one that is immediately apparent (at least it wasn't to me).  They use their tails to intimidate their predators.  So whatever evolutionary disadvantage a large tail produces in terms of avoiding predators, it is (apparently, given that there are still peacocks) more than offset by the advantage they provide in scaring predators away.

But notice that this advantage depends crucially on two factors.  First, it depends on the peacock's environment.  Specifically, it depends on the peacock's predators all being dumb enough to be fooled by the ruse.  As soon as a predator evolves that is smart enough to see through the peacock's ruse and attack him despite the fact that his flared tail looks big and scary, the peacock is done for.  And second, it depends on the peacock in some sense believing in the ruse.  Not that I think peacocks are really capable of thinking these things through, but somewhere in their brains there must be a computational process that goes something like, "If I flare my tail, I am in fact no bigger and scarier than I was before.  But if I act as if I am bigger and scarier, then my predator might believe that I am bigger and scarier, and the net effect will be the same.  Therefore I will act as if I am bigger and scarier despite the fact that I am not."

Belief becomes reified.  The prophecy is self-fulfilling, and the peacock lives.

Now, suppose some human gets it into his head by some random memetic mutation that it might be a good idea to be nice.  Again, intuitively, such an idea could never survive "in the wild", that is, in an environment full of predators and other non-nice things.  But suppose this mutation arises in an environment where the number of predators have already been reduced for some other reason.  Suppose this person lives in a world where civilization has been invented in order to support an agricultural rather than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  Cities have been invented, along with the rule of law.  In such an environment, niceness might get an evolutionary toehold and not immediately be snuffed out.

If the niceness meme manages to get established at all, an amazing positive feedback effect can start to occur: niceness can provide a reproductive advantage in an environment that contains other nice entities.  A group of nice people can have a reproductive advantage over a group of non-nice people because the nice people will spend less of their resources on (say) building weapons and defenses and more on producing food and acquiring knowledge, which can be leveraged into other reproductive advantages.

This works as long as the nice population can remain relatively isolated from the non-nice population.  As soon as the non-nice people meet the nice ones, the nice ones lose, at least in the short term.  But in the long term, two things happen: first, the prisoner's dilemma is iterated, and in an iterated prisoner's dilemma cooperation wins.  And second, the nice genes and memes will evolve the ability to recognize other carriers of the nice genes and memes.  They will do so, obviously, because this ability also confers a reproductive advantage.  The most advantageous position in the evolutionary game is to be a member of the largest group of mutually cooperating entities that you can gain entry into.

Notice that "rationality" has almost nothing to do with this process.  If you can reliably identify other members of your mutually cooperating group by seeing them pray five times a day, then that is what will evolve.

There is one advantage that rationality offers in terms of reproductive fitness, and that is that it can help you manipulate your environment to your advantage.  If you want to be free from disease, say, antibiotics really do work better than prayer (at least for a while).  But there are two things that mitigate against the widespread proliferation of rationality in the long run.  First, you don't have to be rational yourself in order to benefit from the products of rationality.  Antibiotics work as well on fundamentalists as they do on scientists.  And second, rationality leads people to voluntarily limit their own fertility (this is just an empirical fact -- I do not mean to imply by this that having children is irrational).  So the long term Darwinian fate of rationality is far from clear.

But the long-term Darwinian fate of niceness, and even super-niceness, is much clearer.  For starters, there are actual examples in nature of super-niceness.  Ants, for example, are super-nice to other ants within their own colony.  Intra-colony niceness among ants is so extreme that it is actually a mistake to think of ants as individual living entities.  It is the ant colony that is the self-reproducing entity, with individual ants being more akin to cells or organs in our own bodies.  Indeed, our own bodies are colonies of what were once single-celled creatures who figured out that by banding together they would do better than they could on their own.  (Occasionally, one of these entities defects.  The result is cancer.)  There is no room for doubt: from an evolutionary point of view, in the long run, niceness wins.

So there is nothing in Darwinian evolution that would prevent humans from banding together into colonies of individuals that were super-nice to each other.  In fact, one might argue that families, villages, corporations and nation-states are evolutionary steps towards a long-term future in which humans are all super-nice to each other.  (Note that niceness here is measured in terms of reproductive fitness, not in terms of "individual self-actualization" or any such nonsense.  Darwin cares for one thing and one thing only, and it isn't your personal self esteem.)

On this view, the rise of the surveillance state is a natural evolutionary step.  If our long-term evolutionary destinty is to become a colony of super-nice individuals, then defectors (in the game-theoretic sense) will have to be weeded out, and in order to be weeded out they will have to be found.  What better way to find them than to build an Orwellian world.


Anonymous said...

Surveillance states we had so far - East Germany, Soviet Union - eventually collapsed. Would a new technology (internet) make it more reliable?

Ron said...

The state is just the phenotype, the "body" if you will. Just because the body dies it does not mean that the genes (or in this case the memes) are gone. The surveillance state meme continues to survive, reproduce, and evolve, and build surveillance states along the way, just as human genes continue to survive and evolve and build humans along the way. The internet makes it easier for not just the surveillance state meme, but *all* memes to reproduce, including the meme for individual human freedom (which is trying to make its way from my brain into yours by way of the Internet at this very moment).

Personally, I'm rooting for the individual human freedom meme, but I'm not exactly unbiased. My point is just that when fighting a battle it's important to know who your enemy is, and in this case the enemy is (or at least could be) Darwin and the laws of physics.