Evolution, Entertainment, and the Socialist Calculation Debate

Eric Crampton is justly worried that the God-Game genre, typified by SimCity and Civilization, fills people with technocratic hubris, giving rise to the fatal conceit that a benevolent planner can actively improve the lives of citizens through direct intervention. He quotes a review of the new game Dawn of Discovery which complains that the complexity of running an entire society doesn’t make for interesting gameplay:

Naturally, as your population grows, so too does the amount of each good that the population consumes, but there’s no clear way to determine just how many tons of a particular good your residents require. This makes it needlessly difficult to anticipate upcoming shortages, and it’s easy to get frustrated when you find yourself in the midst of a dairy crisis or similar shortage that could have been avoided with clearer information regarding supply and demand.

As Eric points out, any planner in the real world would face even more serious problems. The sheer complexity of social and economic life makes large-scale planning impossible:

If you as central planner don’t build things like airports, ports, libraries, universities, temples or a colosseum, they just don’t get built. If your workers don’t build farms and mines, no entrepreneur steps in to do it. In SimCity, or at least the version I played more than a decade ago now, you have to specify rigid zoning and can’t just let the city evolve. Unfortunately, any realistic game that requires the central planner to make all of these decisions will require that we encounter the calculation problem; it’s neat to see the game reviewer complaining about it. Of course, the gaming would be a bit more boring for the player if he could just set some basic laws, a low tax rate, and try to stay on good terms with the other civilizations out there: the game is designed to maximize fun for the player, not to maximize utility for the simulated persons within the game. The more that games disguise the inefficiencies caused by the “economic planning” approach, the less will today’s players appreciate Hayek.

I think that’s dead right, and also applies to any form of entertainment with a macro-social setting. We enjoy playing games with relatively simple cause-and-effect dynamics because our minds evolved to deal with simple cause-and-effect situations. Most of the challenges we faced in our ancestral environment, and continue to face in our everyday lives today, involve overcoming a particular problem without much need to be concerned about unintended consequences.

A society at large, though, doesn’t work this way, but is instead a complex system in which results emerge from the interaction of many individuals pursuing their disparate goals. Any attempt to improve outcomes through top-down intervention is just as likely to make matters worse. There is conflict between our folk economics and reality and, when we want to be entertained, folk economics always wins: nobody wants to play a game in which the only winning move is not to play, or read a book with no protagonist.

The availability heuristic means that consuming stories of active characters changing the macrostructure of the world singlehandedly through sheer grit and determination is likely to bias our perceptions of reality. The ease of imagining some situation, for example, seems to affect its perceived likelihood. Since entertainment does our imagining for us, it will likely bias our models of the world.

While many fictional biases are likely to affect our everyday lives (by making us afraid of terrorists, for example), technocratic hubris and the “Great Man” theory of history probably don’t matter most of the time. Where they could plausibly have an effect is in the political realm, biasing both voter preferences towards statism and giving policymakers too much faith in their own technocratic abilities. Unfortunately, politics provides no incentives for the correction of our biases.

Scary Sperm Competition Fact of the Day

I’m sure I’ll be having nightmares about this for some time:

In the competition for a partner, males typically have to vie with each other – be it with a colorful plumage, a large set of antlers or a seductive courtship dance. The females of some species, however, copulate with several males, so that rivals even after mating are still not defeated. So their sperm become rivals. Because greater size can increase the chance of fertilization, in some species truly giant sperm cells have evolved – some grow to be even larger than the male that produced them. (…)

This has led to some true giants evolving along the way. A human sperm would have to be 40 meters long in order to measure up against Drosophila bifurca, for example: the males of this fruit-fly are only a few millimeters in size, but produce giant sperm around six centimeters long. Also other insects, as well as some primates, birds and worms are known for the production of giant sperm. Another example is one group of ostracods, whose sperm are up to ten times as big as the animals themselves. These aquatic crustaceans typically grow to only a few millimeters, and are – much like mussels – surrounded by a bivalve-like calcareous shell.

We all know that it’s only the genes which matter biologically, with the organism just being a vehicle for them to get around. I like the illusion of being the boss, though. If the mechanism for combining my genes with those of another organism can beat me in a fight, that illusion is gone.

The Loser Gets Pregnant First

Dinosaur Comics is frequently informative. Today’s comic provides an interesting lesson in flatworm reproduction:


You can watch a video of flatworms penis-fencing here. For me, the take-home lesson from this is that specialization and clear social roles reduce transaction costs. There are also other ways to reduce transaction costs. Some flatworms, for example, reciprocally reproduce: each partner inseminates the other, so both simultaneously becomes a mother and a father.

My first reaction to gender specialization is that it’s efficient but thoroughly unfair. Everyone avoids the cost of penis-fencing, but only through half the population losing all the time. It’s as if a proxy for the penis battle is fought through the pure chance of genetics at conception, with everyone accepting their place thereafter. This unfairness, at least from a pure biological point of view, is illusory.

The skilled penis fencer can expect to have more offspring than the unskilled, since it can impregnate many others without having to bare the costs of pregnancy itself. The situation is different with gender specialization. Since every child has both a mother and a father, the individual who always gets pregnant doesn’t lose in the same way the loser of the penis-fencing contest does. Males always win the penis fencing contest, because females are unarmed. But since exactly one male and one female are required to produce a child, the expected number of offspring does not depend on gender.

Of course, females do need to devote more resources to the production of any particular offspring. This is counteracted by the fact that males are more likely to miss out on reproduction altogether (especially in harem species). Simple economic theory suggests that males will be willing to expend considerable resources in the attempt to reproduce: males are reproductive rent-seekers. This rent-seeking is costly and inefficient. It is also largely zero-sum. Reproductive success in the long run could be maximised if all males of a species could agree not to engage in sexual rent-seeking. Who’s with me?

An Evolutionary Theory of Overprotective Parents

Salon has an interview (hat tip: Unqualified Offerings) with Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a new book arguing that parents should give their kids more freedom to do things on their own. I completely agree with this idea (though I’m not a parent, and wouldn’t bet against my opinion changing if I were to have kids). From my own experience and talking to others, it seems like there’s been a huge shift in parental attitudes in recent years. This demands an explanation. The change has to be at least partly cultural, with child-abduction and paedophilia apparently becoming more salient since I was a kid. I think part of it can also be explained by simple evolutionary theory and economics.

The human mind evolved in an environment of dire poverty and extreme danger compared to that we live in today. The difference between the Pleistocene and modern society can explain many of the political problems we face today. I think one important factor is the difference in the budget constraint we face for certain goods now compared to then. It’s now the conventional wisdom that people overeat and get today because it was once adaptive to eat as much as possible, and so we have a strong motivation to seek food. People didn’t overeat because they did not have access to that much food. The marginal evolutionary benefit of food decreases as we consume more of it, and eventually becomes negative. In the environment of adaptation, though, the peak of the food-fitness funtion was never relevant, and so evolution did not take it into account. Taking a good thing to excess was not specifically programmed out, since scarcity had already taken care of it.

I think there’s something similar going on with overprotective parents. My guess that the relationship between the evolutionary fitness (as well as personal lifetime wellbeing) of a child and the degree to which it is protected by its parents is, like that fitness-food function, positive and decreasing at first, but negative above some threshold. In the environment of adaptation, there were many dangers and protecting kids all the time would have been extremely costly. This could have meant that the peak of the fitness-protection function was similarly never reached, and evolution programmed us to simply protect our children whenever the costs are not overwhelmingly high. Since the world is now a much safer place, and it’s much cheaper (relative to our incomes) to keep an eye on our children with cellphones, GPS, nannies, and fortified backyards, we satiate ourselves with child-protection to a degree which ends up harming our children rather than helping them.

I’m not quite sure whether this explanation works. I don’t think it can explain the huge difference in parental behaviour between between now and twenty years ago, when child protection was almost as cheap as it is today. Wild evolutionary speculation, however, is its own reward.