Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Old Ways

Human technology, like organisms themselves, evolved gradually along with human populations to solve problems posed by different environments. Successful technologies solved problems relating to nutrition, group cohesion, securing territory, and surviving the elements, among many others. 

It is unlikely that the humans who used and gradually changed technologies throughout the ages were aware of all of the functions of their cultural package - any more than we are aware of all of the functions of our cultural package today. A cultural package would reproduce itself by working well enough to be passed down to another generation of humans. Conservatism among simple societies prevented dangerous innovations from destroying the carefully evolved cultural package, but rare successful innovations would occasionally become part of the cultural package. 

Over the past several thousand years, civilization has independently occurred many times. The complexities of civilization have repeatedly added a snowballing load of cultural innovations to human groups, usually resulting in a population explosion and subsequent crash. We are currently likely near a population peak resulting from the greatest innovation snowball the world has ever known. 

The cultural packages that were stable at past times did not evolve to maximize human happiness, but rather, like organisms, to maximize their own reproductive capabilities. A small band of happy foragers could expect to be overwhelmed by a cranky but fecund settlement of farmers; hence, in this example, the farmer cultural package would be reproduced more successfully than the forager package. That said, humans themselves evolved in the presence of past successful stable cultural packages (just as we evolved in the presence of prey species and parasites). Cultural packages that were stable for centuries appear to have done a decent job of providing humans with a sense of meaning and a decent level of wellbeing. 

Should we go back to the old ways? This is both impossible and undesirable. The further back in time we go, the lower the population density norms evolved to support. It is unlikely that the world's present population could be supported in foraging tribes or even simple farming societies. Not only that, but the evolved cultural packages have largely been interrupted; even if we wanted to instantiate them, we would have a hard time finding out exactly what they were. 

Given the search function that past humans used to "find" their cultural packages, it is likely that the cultural packages are local maxima for cultural reproductive success. They are hard-won solutions to complex problems, worked out in the computer of time and human lives; but they are not absolute maxima of anything, and they are not necessarily even local maxima of human wellbeing. Even if we were to go back in time to a pre-civilized society, it is not clear that maintaining existing traditions would be the best way to maximize human wellbeing. It is likely that there are many dimensions along which we could increase human wellbeing at the expense of environment-specific cultural reproduceability. 

Fast forward, however, to the present day, in which existing cultures have moved very far away from evolved cultural packages. In what direction have they moved away, and how has this affected human wellbeing? 

There are two major directions in which cultural packages have changed: toward those norms and institutions that support greater population density (agriculture, Green Revolution, cities), and toward short-term individual preference as dictated by market economies. 

Rich industrialized countries are particularly high in serving short-term individual preference. While these countries have experienced a major reduction in violence over hundreds of years, they also experience new, widespread problems that undermine the very desirability of human life itself. Suicide, for instance, is more prevalent in industrialized countries than homicide. Obesity and depression have both reached epidemic proportions unheard of before the present century. More people live in slums than lived on the entire planet two hundred years ago. 

The old ways (evolved cultural patterns) probably did a decent job of meeting the needs of ancestral populations. These old ways would not meet our needs today. But moving away from ancestral norms based on individual short-term preference is not turning out to be a good way to meet our needs. The invisible hand, it seems, is strangling us. 

We have indulged our short-term preferences at the expense of healthy bodies, meaningful lives, and stable relationships. This is not an indictment of human willpower: we simply did not evolve the capabilities to resist the temptations provided by modern life. 

The old ways are not the answer. Moment-to-moment individual preference is not the answer. Is there an answer?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Are Children Part of the Pattern?

In my previous post on marriage, I outlined a few behavior patterns that may be associated with a stable, successful marriage. From the evolutionary psychology perspective, a natural question follows: is having children one of the patterns that would support, and hence predict, marital stability?

In the late 1960s in the United States, when divorce was first beginning to become common, there was a clear answer: children had a strong, statistically significant stabilizing effect on marriage, at least for the first few children and at least while the children were young. In a 1977 paper reporting on data current as of the late 1960s, Becker et al. found that the presence of a child under the age of 6 by the fifteenth month of marriage reduced the probability of divorce in the first five years of marriage by about 25% (removing about one percentage point of an approximately four percent risk of divorce), and had an even greater effect in the second five years of marriage. (A second child, however, reduced the risk of divorce less than the first - and a fifth child seemed to actually increase the risk of divorce. In addition, the risk of divorce was increased if the wife was pregnant prior to the marriage.)

That children should be stabilizing to a marriage makes perfect evolutionary sense and hardly needs explanation. Marriage is a union for the (evolutionary) purpose of supporting common genetic interests; children are exactly the "marital capital" that would be expected to make both parents more willing to invest in the partnership. The presence of children also makes divorce less attractive to the members of the couple, as each would have a harder time finding a new mate given the financial, social, and physical toll children take on one's subsequent mate value. 

That NOT having children should destabilize a union would make excellent evolutionary sense to the extent that sterile unions were a serious risk under the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. To the extent that sterility was a risk for couples in EEAs, whether through genetic incompatibility, infectious disease, or other reasons, there would be major fertility benefits to exiting a union if it failed to produce children (at least for the fertile partner). If sterility were rare in the EEAs, a behavioral adaptation facilitating the abandonment of a childless union might not be adaptive.

So in the 1960s, when legal marriage was still somewhat synonymous with lifetime partnership, having one or two young children did, in fact, contribute to marital success. However, this has not been the case with cohabitation relationships; having children actually strongly destabilizes a cohabitation relationship

I have argued that because humans evolved to rely on cultural patterns and coercion to enforce marital partnerships, marriage no longer really exists; all that is left to us is cohabitation relationships under the false name of marriage. If this is true, we would expect the presence of children to begin destabilizing (what is now legally recognized as) marriage, rather than stabilizing marriage, in proportion with the reduction of coercion and other cultural patterns that support marriage. Sadly, in a 2001 study from the UK by Chan & Halpin, this is exactly what was found to have occurred. The study examined multiple sources of data from the 1950s through the 1990s and found that while the presence of a small child had a stabilizing effect on marriage in the 1950s, the effect began to change sign in the 1980s and was large and negative by the 1990s:

For those who got married in the 1950s, each additional child was associated with a 16% reduction in divorce risk. In contrast, for the 1990s marriage cohort, each additional child is associated with a 37% increase in divorce risk. [Emphasis mine.]

Even young children - those most stabilizing in the Becker paper - were found to be destabilizing by the 1990s. Chan & Halpin found no effect for the gender of children, but note that some authors have found that sons are less destabilizing than daughters. The cause the authors found most likely for the shift was income inequality, as income inequality increased drastically in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s and the destabilizing effect was most prominent for low-income families. 

In modern life, the birth of a child is associated with a sudden decrease in marital satisfaction that generally persists throughout the relationship. Similarly situated couples who do not have children experience a more gradual decline in marital satisfaction. How might this observation be explained in terms of the effect of children on marital success?

One hypothesis is that children have always caused marital satisfaction to plummet, but that patterns and coercion were strong enough to cause a troubled couple to remain together. A second hypothesis might be that the sudden drop in marital satisfaction with the birth of a child is new, and reflects the loss of happiness-maintaining patterns that would, in EEA or even pre-1980s conditions, prevent the drop in marital satisfaction that is now observed shortly after the birth of a first child. Those investigating children and happiness in the 1970s and 1980s found a decrease in happiness with children (see Baumeister's Meanings of Life, Appendix B: The Parenthood Paradox), including a decrease in marital satisfaction, but it is not clear if this change predates the modern loss of marriage patterns.

Whatever the explanation, marriage as it currently exists is not providing the kind of stable, reliable union of genetic interests that can survive the stress of the birth of a child - and poor children are those most harmed. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

What Marriage Is

Marriage between humans is potentially the fusion of the genetic interests of two individuals, the formation of a gift-relationship community in which each may act altruistically, and each reaps substantial rewards.

However, there is also the possibility for competition and exploitation in marriage, both in the formation state and at any point after formation. We would expect humans, as embodied reproductive strategies, to have emotional, physical, and cultural means of dealing with competition and the risk of exploitation, but allowing for the formation and maintenance of marriages under auspicious circumstances.

The environments in which humans adapted (EEAs) include other co-evolving organisms, such as dogs, parasites, and prey species. Similarly, human EEAs include co-evolving cultures. If the culture in which we evolved suddenly changes, it may wreak as much havoc as if the species we evolved to eat (or which evolved to eat us) suddenly disappeared.

I believe the norms surrounding marriage are such cultural elements. We evolved in cultures with certain norms surrounding marriage; these varied between cultures, but not arbitrarily. Our culture has changed drastically - exponentially - in recent years, and the elements of culture relating to marriage have been some of those that have changed the most.

One way in which culture has supported marriage is through coercion: once married, societies enforced ongoing duties between the pair. Parties to a marriage were forced to make the best of their one marriage, as they likely would not get another shot. While this would force some to remain in bad, even abusive, marriages, it probably benefited most by encouraging couples to form and maintain good marriages. It's a sort of spike on the steering wheel. As generally occurs in human institutions, a few unlucky folks are thrown under the bus for the good of the other monkeys.

But culture has also supported marriage by providing norms for mate-finding and marriage practices that helped our ancestors maintain marriage communities that accomplished their purposes.

Parties must choose whether to form a marriage. Even if you're a woman in a nasty EEA and get sold by your parents to your 70-year-old uncle or whatever, you still must choose whether to cooperate or defect within the limits of your power. Not just at the inception, but throughout the marriage, each party constantly faces the choice to cooperate in the marriage (a good strategy if the marriage is a good one, as marriage has substantial health, fitness, and happiness rewards to offer) or defect (a good choice if the marriage appears to be a bad one for various reasons).

However, defection is not all-or-nothing. If things aren't great, a minor reduction in commitment ("shit test," you might say) might be more appropriate than an outright defection. But a reduction in commitment can either trigger increased commitment by one's partner, or trigger a counter-reduction. In the latter case, the marriage community spirals out of control into a defection cycle.

What are the ancestral behaviors that might promote a happy marriage? What cues might indicate a sinking ship? We'd all like to know that, and I don't pretend to be an expert on marital behavior. But what follows is my best guess as to some behaviors and triggers that either reinforce or erode a marriage community.

Behaviors that Reinforce Marital Harmony

  • Nutrition sharing. Human couples seem to have evolved to form hunting/cooking partnerships. Division of labor by sex is on the list of human universals. Norms often treat men and women in possession of food differently, reflecting different sense of property rights based on the existence of a marriage community. Even if you don't buy the gender stuff, co-eating seems to be an extremely important ancestral method of reinforcing a pair bond.
  • Regular, exclusive sex.
  • A mutual mental commitment to indefinite future cooperation (being "all in")
  • Mutual mental modeling from frequent interaction
  • A 5:1 or greater positive:negative interaction ratio
  • Co-sleeping (and co-living in general)

These behaviors were once common, even socially obligatory, between married couples. How common are these behaviors now?

Defection Triggers

What behaviors might trigger our evolved defection responses? For the most part, these are the mirror image of the above reinforcing behaviors:

  • Failure to share nutrition, cook, or eat together
  • Treatment of the marriage as a market relationship
  • Lack of regular sex
  • Sex outside the marriage
  • Close friendships with members of the opposite sex who might threaten the relationship (opportunities to jump ship)
  • Evidence of low mental commitment to future cooperation
  • Crankiness (lower than 5:1 positive:negative interaction)
  • Lack of interaction or mutual interest resulting in poor mental modeling
  • Irregular co-sleeping or co-living

Even though modern couples may have solid reasons for engaging in the above triggering behaviors, it is not necessarily the case that we can control our ancestral responses to such behaviors.

A triggering behavior is likely to at minimum trigger a reduction in commitment from one's partner. If the response is not a reevaluation and recommitment from the "offending" partner, but rather no response or a negative response, an escalating cycle culminating in outright defection is likely.

The maintenance of the marital community - keeping the cooperative strategy operational, while preventing the defection strategy from being triggered, and certainly preventing it from triggering a defection cycle - is one job human culture used to do. It would be nice if modern independent, individual humans were able to take up the slack, but that is not a job our brains and bodies evolved to do. Those who manage to create lasting, happy marriages are fast becoming the minority. In addition to the broken-hearted marriage refugees themselves, the biggest losers are the children, brought into the world without their consent and denied their ancestral privilege of growing up in a functioning marital community.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Is Nutritional Science For Real? A Broad Experimental Design

Do nice abs speak louder than a nutritional science degree? Should they?

Interdisciplinary criticism poses a problem: tribal loyalties may unite insiders, but outsiders may geninely lack the theoretical knowledge to evaluate the claims of insiders.

I propose a general experimental design to test the expert claims of an entire field: in this case, nutrition science.

The nutritionists' case is timely, as the field has attempted to enforce its monopoly on anything resembling nutrition advice by, for instance, trying to shut down bloggers who discuss nutrition but aren't "certified." A legitimate question for the field of nutrition studies is this: is the special knowlege obtained by formal education in this field effective in solving the most important nutrition problems?

The most salient, widespread, and harmful nutrition problem in industrialized Western countries is obesity. My experimental design will test whether nutrition science, as a field, offers effective solutions to obesity.

In my view, a solution is "effective" if (a) when used, it reliably produces weight loss in obese people; and (b) it is "doable" - people are capable of putting the solution into practice. So even though a lettuce-and-fish-tea diet might be shown to produce weight loss in those who stick to it, it's not effective if most people can't stick to it. The human mind itself, including its limited willpower, is relevant to the solution.

Experimental Design

My experiment would test the claims of nutrition science as an entire field by measuring whether obese nutrition science students lose weight compared to matched controls enrolled in a program of comparable activity level.

An appropriate number of entering students in a nutrition science program (or more than one program) would be chosen as the experimental group. The control group would consist of a similar number of students enrolled in a similar education program in a subject unrelated to health or nutrition at the same institution(s), with similar demographics, overweight/obesity, and activity level.

Students in both groups would be weighed and have body fat percentages measured at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups would then have weight and body fat measured at the end of their programs, and perhaps five and ten years later.

The experiment is designed so that only the special knowledge varies between the experimental and the control group. (Suggestions welcome on how to better achieve this.)

If, at the end of five or ten years, the nutrition science students who were obese or overweight have lost weight (especially if they have become non-obese and non-overweight), and the healthy-weight students have not become obese, compared to the control group, that would be strong evidence that nutrition science provides effective solutions to obesity. Even if only 10% more obese nutrition science students than control students lost weight, that would be evidence that nutrition science has a true understanding of obesity that can be translated into real-life solutions.

However, if at the end of five or ten years, the nutrition science students have not lost more weight or remained healthier than control students, that would be some evidence that nutrition science, as a field, does not truly understand obesity in a way that can be translated into effective solutions, as define above.

This experimental design is not limited to nutrition science, of course. It could equally well apply to, for instance, therapeutic psychology; if psychology students become less depressed than control students, that's evidence of true understanding and effective methods; if psych students are not less depressed than control students at five or ten years, that would be some evidence that the special knowledge of psychology does not constitute a deep understanding of the problems it purports to address.

Thanks to @wonkinakilt on Twitter for suggestions!

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