Humans had acquired the ability to learn from others, and to copy, imitate and improve upon their actions. This meant that elements of culture themselves— ideas, languages, beliefs, songs, art, technologies— could act like genes, capable of being transmitted to others and reproduced. But unlike genes, these elements of culture could jump directly from one mind to another, shortcutting the normal genetic routes of transmission. And so our cultures came to define a second great system of inheritance, able to transmit knowledge down the generations.
To be human at some point came to mean access to a growing and shared repository of “information, technologies, wisdom, and good luck.”
Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded. And, being able to jump from mind to mind granted the elements of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant. Where you are stuck from birth with a sample of the genes that made your parents, you can sample throughout your life from a sea of evolving ideas. Not surprisingly, then, our cultures quickly came to take over the running of our day-to -day affairs as they outstripped our genes in providing solutions to the problems of our existence. Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we fight or even kill in a war.
Culture evolved primarily though language. This was the foundation of social learning. The best ideas were able to be passed on without having to reinvent them.
Pagel’s take on social learning is fascinating. “Theft” became part of our culture and part of what propelled us forward with such ferocity.
Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.
So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck. The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce.
This is the path we choose and our world is the result.
In Letters of Note we find an interesting letter from him to Joseph Hooker 15 years before what would later be called natural selection, he mentions his theory and likens it to “confessing a murder.”
Bromley Kent Thursday
My dear Sir
I must write to thank you for your last letter; I to tell you how much all your views and facts interest me.— I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”— which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector.— I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil—
What limit shall you take on the Patagonian side— has d’Orbigny published, I believe he made a large collection at the R. Negro, where Patagonia retains its usual forlorn appearance; at Bahia Blanca & northward the features of Patagonia insensibly blend into the savannahs of La Plata.— The Botany of S. Patagonia (& I collected every plant in flower at the season when there) would be worth comparison with the N. Patagonian collection by d’Orbigny.— I do not know anything about King’s plants, but his birds were so inaccurately habitated, that I have seen specimen from Brazil, Tierra del & the Cape de Verde Isd all said to come from the St. Magellan.— What you say of Mr Brown is humiliating; I had suspected it, but cd not allow myself to believe in such heresy.— FitzRoy gave him a rap in his Preface, & made me very indignant, but it seems a much harder one wd not have been wasted. My crptogamic collection was sent to Berkeley; it was not large; I do not believe he has yet published an account, but he wrote to me some year ago that he had described & mislaid all his descriptions. Wd it not be well for you to put yourself in communication with him; as otherwise some things will perhaps be twice laboured over.— My best (though poor) collection of the Crptogam. was from the Chonos Islands.—
Would you kindly observe one little fact for me, whether any species of plant, peculiar to any isld, as Galapagos, St. Helena or New Zealand, where there are no large quadrupeds, have hooked seeds,—such hooks as if observed here would be thought with justness to be adapted to catch into wool of animals.—
Would you further oblige me some time by informing me (though I forget this will certainly appear in your Antarctic Flora) whether in isld like St. Helena, Galapagos, & New Zealand, the number of families & genera are large compared with the number of species, as happens in coral-isld, & as I believe? in the extreme Arctic land. Certainly this is case with Marine shells in extreme Arctic seas.—Do you suppose the fewness of species in proportion to number of large groups in Coral-islets., is owing to the chance of seeds from all orders, getting drifted to such new spots? as I have supposed.—
Did you collect sea-shells in Kerguelen land, I shd like to know their character.? Your interesting letters tempt me to be very unreasonable in asking you questions; but you must not give yourself any trouble about them, for I know how fully & worthily you are employed.
Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,— but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his— though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter— excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.
Believe me my dear Sir
Very truly your’s
Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.
So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”
*** What is morality?
Even philosophers don’t agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don’t believe in morality at all.
To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:
Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):
A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.
Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.
As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.
Punching someone in the face.
Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.
Not all morality has to do with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”
*** Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective
If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.
Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.
We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.
Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”
This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.
But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.
Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.
Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”
“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”
is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.
*** The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy
there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).
*** How can we best understand our moral natures?
Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).
Another lens is science.
We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.
*** What are we born with?
Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.
Bloom quotes Smith’s work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”
*** What aspects of morality are natural to us?
Our natural endowments include:
a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished
Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.
We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”
*** In The End …
We’re born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”
There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …
that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not true; it is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology.
It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
In pharmacology, the effective dose is the amount of a drug that produces the desired response in most patients. Determining the range for a drug, the difference between the minimum effective dose and the maximum tolerated dose is incredibly important.
Most people think that anything beyond the minimum effective dose is a waste.
To boil water, the MED is 212°F (100°C) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.
In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months.
More is not better. Indeed, your greatest challenge will be resisting the temptation to do more. The MED not only delivers the most dramatic results, but it does so in the least time possible.
While that’s true in some cases it’s not true in all cases. The world is complicated. Perhaps an example or two will help illustrate.
Consider a bridge used to take vehicles from one side of a river to another. The maximum anticipated load is 100 tons. So, in theory, it would be over-engineering to make sure it can withstand 101 tons.
Another example, think about the person that wants to make a sports team. Do they want to do barely enough work, so they are 0.01 percent better than the other person to make the team? No of course not.
Do you want a Dr. performing surgery on you that did the bare minimum to pass tests in medical school?
No of course not. You don’t want to leave things to chance. You want to build a bridge that your kids can cross without you worrying if there are more cars on the bridge than some engineer 15 years ago guessed. You want a surgeon who is in the top 1%, not one that just passed med-school. You want to be so good that you’re not on the roster bubble.
There are a lot of areas where applying the minimum required to get an outcome and calling it a day doesn’t make any sense at all. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. You want to think about the dynamic and holistic world that you’re operating in. And to borrow a concept from Engineering, you want to make sure you have a Margin of Safety.
What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.
In any system continuous growth is impossible. Everything reaches a breakpoint. The real question is how the system responds to this breakpoint. “A successful network has only a small collapse, out of which a stronger network emerges wherein it reaches equilibrium, oscillating around an ideal size.”
The book opens with an interesting example.
In 1944, the United States Coast Guard brought 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island, located in the Bering Sea just off the coast of Alaska. Reindeer love eating lichen, and the island was covered with it, so the reindeer gorged, grew large, and reproduced exponentially. By 1963, there were over 6,000 reindeer on the island, most of them fatter than those living in natural reindeer habitats.
There were no human inhabitants on St. Matthew Island, but in May 1965 the United States Navy sent an airplane over the island, hoping to photograph the reindeer. There were no reindeer to be found, and the flight crew attributed this to the fact that the pilot didn’t want to fly very low because of the mountainous landscape. What they didn’t realize was that all of the reindeer, save 42 of them, had died. Instead of lichen, the ground was covered with reindeer skeletons.
The network of St. Matthew Island reindeer had collapsed: the result of a population that grew too large and consumed too much. The reindeer crossed a pivotal point , a breakpoint, when they began consuming more lichen than nature could replenish. Lacking any awareness of what was happening to them, they continued to reproduce and consume. The reindeer destroyed their environment and, with it, their ability to survive. Within a few short years, the remaining 42 reindeer were dead. Their collapse was so extreme that for these reindeer there was no recovery.
In the wild, of course, reindeer can move if they run out of lichen, which allows lichen in the area to be replenished before they return.
Nature rarely allows the environment to be pushed so far that it collapses. Ecosystems generally keep life balanced. Plants create enough oxygen for animals to survive, and the animals, in turn, produce carbon dioxide for the plants. In biological terms, ecosystems create homeostasis.
We evolved to reproduce and consume whatever food is available.
Back when our ancestors started climbing down from the trees, this was a good thing: food was scarce so if we found some, the right thing to do was gorge. As we ate more, our brains were able to grow, becoming larger than those of any other primates. This was a very good thing. But brains consume disproportionately large amounts of energy and, as a result, can only grow so big relative to body size. After that point, increased calories are actually harmful. This presents a problem for humanity, sitting at the top of the food pyramid. How do we know when to stop eating? The answer, of course, is that we don’t. People in developed nations are growing alarmingly obese, morbidly so. Yet we continue to create better food sources, better ways to consume more calories with less bite.
Mother Nature won’t help us because this is not an evolutionary issue: most of the problems that result from eating too much happen after we reproduce, at which point we are no longer evolutionarily important. We are on our own with this problem. But that is where our big brains come in. Unlike reindeer, we have enough brainpower to understand the problem, identify the breakpoint, and prevent a collapse.
We all know that physical things have limits. But so do the things we can’t see or feel. Knowledge is an example. “Our minds can only digest so much. Sure, knowledge is a good thing. But there is a point at which even knowledge is bad.” This is information overload.
We have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better and this is true across virtually every domain. When we try to build artificial intelligence, we start by shoveling as much information into a computer as possible. Then we stare dumbfounded when the machine can’t figure out how to tie its own shoes. When we don’t get the results we want, we just add more data. Who doesn’t believe that the smartest person is the one with the biggest memory and the most degrees, that the strongest person has the largest muscles, that the most creative person has the most ideas?
Growth is great until it goes too far.
[W]e often destroy our greatest innovations by the constant pursuit of growth. An idea emerges, takes hold, crosses the chasm, hits a tipping point, and then starts a meteoric rise with seemingly limitless potential. But more often than not, it implodes, destroying itself in the process.
Growth isn’t bad. It’s just not as good as we think.
Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest. The tinest insects often outlive the largest lumbering animals. Ants, bees, and cockroaches all outlived the dinosaurs and will likely outlive our race. … The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run. What is missing—what everyone is missing—is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.
Of course, “The world is a competitive place, and the best way to stomp out potential rivals is to consume all the available resources necessary for survival.”
Otherwise, the risk is that someone else will come along and use those resources to grow and eventually encroach on the ones we need to survive.
Networks rarely approach limits slowly “… they often don’t know the carrying capacity of their environments until they’ve exceeded it. This is a characteristic of limits in general: the only way to recognize a limit is to exceed it. ” This is what happened with MySpace. It grew too quickly. Pages became cluttered and confusing. There was too much information. It “grew too far beyond its breakpoint.”
There is an interesting paradox here though: unless you want to keep small social networks, the best way to keep the site clean is actually to use a filter that prevents you from seeing a lot of information, which creates a filter bubble.
Stibel offers three phases to any successful network.
first, the network grows and grows and grows exponentially; second, the network hits a breakpoint, where it overshoots itself and overgrows to a point where it must decline, either slightly or substantially; finally, the network hits equilibrium and grows only in the cerebral sense, in quality rather than in quantity.
He offers some advice:
Rather than endless growth, the goal should be to grow as quickly as possible—what technologists call hypergrowth—until the breakpoint is reached. Then stop and reap the benefits of scale alongside stability.
Breakpoint goes on to predict the fall of Facebook.
The first thing we do is try to figure out what went wrong. When people in organizations evaluate poor outcomes, determining what went wrong and why is one of the first steps.
Once we have a cause, whether accurate or (often) not, we distribute this information around the organization with the hopes that the knowledge of why we made a mistake will prevent us from repeating that mistake.
We attempt to eliminate the mistake from happening again.
“Organizations have lots of reasons to dislike errors: they can pose severe safety risks, they disrupt coordination, they lead to waste, they reduce the chance for project success, they erode the culture, and they can result in lawsuits and bad publicity. … In your job as a manager, you find yourself spending most of your time flagging and correcting errors. You are continually checking to see if workers meet their performance standards. If you find deviations, you quickly respond to get everything back on track. It’s much easier and less frustrating to manage by reducing errors than to try to boost insights. You know how to spot errors.”
We hate errors and we make every effort not to repeat them.
Here’s an idea that I’ve been toying around with recently — we can’t repeat the same error twice, in part because things are always changing.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
The river changes and so does the person.
Evolution is blind to failure.
Evolution doesn’t have intent. When the DNA copy of a species creates a variation—say a shorter beak or sweeter taste—it does so without realizing these traits might have been tried before. These traits are not purposeful; evolution is blind to previous failures and cares not whether a mutation that failed 8 years ago occurs again. This is not a conscious process. What failed to become an advantaged trait two generations ago may become one today. It may be that the environment changed, and where there was once a preference for a shorter beak, a longer one now offers an advantage, however slight.
By repeating errors, evolution adapts. This is why natural selection works. Artificial selection, on the other hand, makes us fragile because selection isn’t blind anymore.
So why do we fail. One of the reasons for failure is our own ignorance.
“We may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works,” writes Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto. “There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop.”
These things are within our grasp but we are not quite there yet. Human knowledge grows by the day. Knowledge in this case can be positive ‘what works’ and negative ‘what doesn’t work.’ For example, we can now build skyscrapers hundreds of stories; this knowledge didn’t exist 100 years ago. Thanks to computers and technology we can now model more variables, and we’re better able to predict the weather.
(In these endeavours we’re improving quickly in terms of knowledge and technology, while the environment changes slower.)
The same water doesn’t cross your foot. The world is always changing. What used to be a tailwind is now a headwind and vice versa.
We can excuse ignorance, when we only have limited understanding, but we cannot excuse ineptitude. Failures when the knowledge exists and we act contrary to it, become hard to forgive. This is important in the context of organizations because we tend to forgive someone who makes a ‘mistake’ for the first time but punish the person who makes the same ‘mistake’ again. This is a form of artificial selection.
So we punish a person, who, whether intentionally or not, is mimicking evolution. Yet we can never really make the ‘same mistake’ twice because the same exact conditions do not exist again. We’re not the same and neither is world. (Of course, they are only punished if the outcome is negative.)
I’m not trying to say learning from mistakes is bad, only that it is limited (and a form of artificial selection). It’s a piece to the puzzle of knowledge. But if your process for learning from mistakes doesn’t account for changing knowledge/technology and environments you have a blind spot. Things change.
Improving our ability to learn from mistakes involves more than simply determining what went wrong and trying to avoid that again in the future. We need a deeper understanding of the key variables that govern the situation (and their relation to the environment), the decision making process, and our knowledge at the time of the decision.
Sometimes it’s smart to attempt things without knowledge of previous mistakes and sometimes it’s not.