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Emergence: Musing on hierarchy, sociobiology and modern media - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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July 16th, 2007


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09:18 pm - Emergence: Musing on hierarchy, sociobiology and modern media
After vastly enjoying his latest book The Ghost Map, I've decided to read Steven Johnson's other works – I started with Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. In my typically erratic way of reading such books, I've now read the first section, and most of the third & last section, but haven't yet read the middle. It is a engrossing and well-written as his previous book.

The theory of emergent complexity is fascinating in part because it is often counter-intuitive, and goes against much of the basis of human philosophy and even human thought. Johnson points out that until the second half of the 20th century the behavior of everything from the cells in a slime mold, to social insects, to flocking in birds were attributes to a large extent to some sort of controlling force, typically in the form of a single or a small number of individuals ultimately being responsible for controlling the colony, hive, or flock. Such theories are familiar, comfortable, and most of all exceedingly hierarchical. Emergence is counter-intuitive specifically because it is not hierarchical.

Something that Johnson does not mention, but which seems fairly obvious to me from looking at humans and other higher primates is that as a species we are quite hierarchical. I am well known for having little patience with the idea of genetic determination of behavior, but there are exceptions, specifically those exceptions involve the idea that we have a few simple behavioral rules from which the multitude of human cultures and ways of life emerge.

One of the primary problems with sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, or whatever name the ideologues masquerading as scientists call it is that it almost always attempts to explain features of modern western (often US) culture in detail and ends up with ludicrous theories about inherent preferences for certain body types or skin and hair tones that in addition to being often deeply racist, are utterly ludicrous when you examine a multitude of different cultures. The entire endeavor reminds me a great deal of theories about behavior (such as the flocking of birds) before someone applied the principles of emergence to the problem.

I'm fairly convinced that genetic determinism of behavior will come down to a few simple rules that are more or less strong in different individuals, and that the vast majority of behavior comes out from the interaction of these few initial rules with culture, idiosyncratic experience and all of the many other complexities of human social interaction.

I'm equally certain that one of these rules is either a preference for hierarchy or is something that universally results in a preference for hierarchy, because if you get humans together in groups larger than a dozen or so, hierarchies always form, and they usually form is smaller groups. An increasing awareness of this fact is one of the reasons that I do not believe that any form of anarchy is possible on a large scale. If, through advanced technology, we can eliminate scarcity of the requirements of basic needs, they we can more closely approach it, but without re-engineering our brains, I'm fairly certain that even in such an economy with no real scarcity we'll still be dealing with hierarchies, and in general planned hierarchy (meaning governments) works better than emergent hierarchy, since the later almost always produces leadership by either the loudest or the most brutal.

In any case, this innate desire for hierarchy was clearly one of the primary obstacles to the acceptance of the idea of emergent complexity, since we when we seek out patterns around us (another trait common to all humans) we also look for hierarchy, since that's what our own fairly simple set of programmed rules leads us to expect. In short, our own emergent behavior made it more difficult for us to understand the concept of emergent behavior.

As a sidenote, the last section is both amusing and fascinating, because the book was written in 2001, and he make predictions about TV and other media 5 years in the future, which is always a dangerous thing to do. His predictions of universal, networked DVRs and easily searchable media are in part true. In addition to Tivo recently introducing a service where you can download movies from Amazon for a relatively small fee (the movies can be watched, but not recorded onto other media w/o much hacking) and most cable companies offer increasingly large movie libraries instantly available at the push of a button, and also are increasingly including DVRs as part of their upper-end service, but all such offerings are still regarded as premium services and so as of a year ago (the latest statistics I can find) only slightly more than 11% of US households have DVRs (including both TiVo and cable company DVRs), which is likely something more like 15% today. The twin evils of modern copyright law and the corporate desire to maintain tight control of mass media are largely responsible for the difference between Johnson's predictions and the current state of affairs.

As a second sidenote, here's an excellent National Geographic article about emergence theory applied mostly to the natural world, that is also a good introduction to this field.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:xi_o_teaz
Date:July 17th, 2007 05:27 am (UTC)
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I largely agree with many of the things you mention here, particularly my biggest problem with Anarchy--like World Peace--is that they make great Theories, but could never come about with that most despised of Theorists, "the human element".

I think that article I mentioned a short time ago had some interesting points, even if I have yet to "take a stand" on the issues. I think there are certain things "True" about both sides' ideas. E.g., whilst I think that the whole idea of "men's preference for Blondes" may be a bit off, some of the ideas on having a general genetic preference for large males and females with physical features that hint at increased fertility seem to make sense to me. There will be many exceptions that prove this rule, but I think that--as a general rule--many of these things are pretty good ways of explaining things.
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From:heron61
Date:July 17th, 2007 08:26 am (UTC)
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I just responded to your post about that article. The short form is to advise you to avoid ideology disguised as science, the longer form is a mixture of dismay and disgust that articles like that are take seriously.

Some of the individual ideas might make sense, if they were actually supported by cross-cultural and cross-temporal data, almost universally, they are not. Instead, what you have is a series of allegedly scientific myths attempting to explain idiosyncratic details of modern western culture that are often different from details of both other cultures and the way western culture was centuries ago. For example, ideals of male & female beauty are very clearly purely cultural. Even preferences for people who appear to be in good health are far from universal (witness both modern anorexic models & the deathly palor popular in the early 19th century romantic era). Even confining these ideas to western europe, in the last 1,000 years attitudes towards beauty are immensely variable and purely cultural. When food is scarce and most people are very poor, fat is sexy, when food is abundant and most people are not very poor, being thin is sexy, and so on...
[User Picture]
From:andrewducker
Date:July 17th, 2007 10:28 am (UTC)
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"modern anorexic models"

I've never been convinced that that many people think that Kate Moss (for instance) is actually sexy. What we _do_ seem to have is people finding barely-pubertal body shapes sexy, and the anorexic thing occasionally taps into that.
[User Picture]
From:xuenay
Date:July 17th, 2007 01:23 pm (UTC)
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I don't think that evolutionary psychology is as bad as people are making it out to be, but it's true that it can easily attract a lot of people who tend towards overgeneralization and misuse of it. That article is a good example - apparently the authors aren't very up to date, since they bring up some "truths" that have been since then refuted. For instance, the bit about waist-to-hip ratio, refuted here and here.

Still, I'll comment in more detail once I've had a chance to finish reading the three EvoPsych books (two explaining the subject and one criticizing it) I've had in my bookshelf and that I've been skimming for a while now. I do suspect evolutionary psychology does provide a lot of useful material and is very useful in explaining many human behaviors and emotions, even if the link you mentioned isn't a very good example of any of that.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:July 17th, 2007 07:10 pm (UTC)
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I think many of the criticisms are valid, in large part because so much evopsych that makes it into the popular press is so appallingly bad. More importantly, given that biological systems seem largely to use simple rules that produce emergent complexity, it seems only reasonable that what genetic imperatives we have function in precisely the same fashion, and yet I've never seen a suggestion of this in any evopsych literature, instead most of it seems to be laundry lists of traits derived from modern western society and discussions of how these traits were adaptive in the paleolithic.

At least wrt gender issues, I strongly recommend Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sterling is trained in both biology and the social sciences and the breadth of her education (IMHO at least) helps her avoid many of the pitfalls that seem so common in EvoPsych proponents who are trained in genetics and similar very narrow subsets of biology.

A more general (if very short) discussion of similar synthesis theories
can be found in this article. Although neither Sterling nor anyone in this article mention emergent complexity, the general approach seems far more useful than standard EvoPsych, which where it isn't ideological propaganda, largely seems to be ill-considered fad-driven science. However, my very strong guess is that whenever we finally uncover the genetic contribution to behavior, it will turn out to be a fairly small number of simple (and clearly variable) imperatives that produce far more complex behavior, and not laundry lists of large and general traits.
[User Picture]
From:xuenay
Date:July 19th, 2007 07:51 pm (UTC)
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There's lots of bad evopsych, but not all of it is bad. For instance, the hypothesis about the sex that uses more resources for the offspring being more selective about its mate than the sex that doesn't, on grounds of those scarce resources. It makes evolutionary sense, it's a behavior that's been observed in many animals, and it seems to fit human behavior as well.

For evopsych literature not touching on the simple rules, my guess would be that it's because the literature in question is operating on the level of the complexity that has emerged, not the low-level rules, and the nature of the exact method by which the complexity does emerge is vague enough that it's simpler not to touch that for the while being.

I'll see if I get a chance to look at Sexing the Body - thanks for the hint. Reading through the article, I thought what it was saying was pretty obvious. In fact, the evopsych book I'm reading through now (from 1999) uses several pages in the first chapter to explictly point out that evolutionary adaptations are by nature formed by the interaction of both the environment and the genes, and that it'd be a serious misunderstanding to presume that something is unchangable because it's genetic! In light of that, the article's claims of being an entirely new approach sound pretty exaggarated...
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From:aekiy
Date:July 17th, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
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Actually, not all humans do have a tendency toward hierarchy and it's found that foraging cultures traditionally tend to be egalitarian. Of course, thanks to the dominance of more complex and war-like cultures, egalitarian, foraging cultures have faded.

As a random thought, it is known that as you move up the scale from one cultural type to another -- foraging, agricultural/horticultural, industrialized -- societies become increasingly unstable. Perhaps it's that instability that leads to the rise of people taking leadership roles in an attempt to organize chaos. I believe it should be possible to have large scale, egalitarian societies, but on the surface it's impractical, because it's increasingly difficult to achieve a consensus the larger the group involved; thus regulatory agents begin to appear in the collective intelligence.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:July 17th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)
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Actually, not all humans do have a tendency toward hierarchy and it's found that foraging cultures traditionally tend to be egalitarian. Of course, thanks to the dominance of more complex and war-like cultures, egalitarian, foraging cultures have faded.

However, band-level foraging cultures are all very small scale, If you get humans together in long-term groups of 8-30, they won't necessarily develop a hierarchy. However, groups of humans larger than 100 always develop hierarchies.
[User Picture]
From:aekiy
Date:July 17th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)
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Right. So what I'm saying is that the hierarchical behavior tends to emerge as a result of increasing numbers. It is human nature to branch off into new groups as the size of a group increases, but when population increases too quickly or people settle down instead of remaining nomadic, and population increases in a given area over time, you have an exponentially increasing probability of "governors" arising amongst the populous. Not because humans are innately hierarchical -- a lot of evidence suggests that's not true in traditional terms -- but instead because humans don't adjust well to higher population density without some sort of formal structure, because of the difficulty of trying to maintain an unstructured consensual culture. We just haven't come up with a better response to that sort of thing yet, if only because the cultures that give rise to dominating individuals tend to become dominating cultures as well, decreasing the probability of alternate forms of culture from arising.

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