Tag: Evolution

The Positive Side of Shame

Recently, shame has gotten a bad rap. It’s been branded as toxic and destructive. But shame can be used as a tool to effect positive change.

***

A computer science PhD candidate uncovers significant privacy-violating security flaws in large companies, then shares them with the media to attract negative coverage. Google begins marking unencrypted websites as unsafe, showing a red cross in the URL bar. A nine-year-old girl posts pictures of her school’s abysmal lunches on a blog, leading the local council to step in.

What do each of the aforementioned stories have in common? They’re all examples of shame serving as a tool to encourage structural changes.

Shame, like all emotions, exists because it conferred a meaningful survival advantage for our ancestors. It is a universal experience. The body language associated with shame — inverted shoulders, averted eyes, pursed lips, bowed head, and so on — occurs across cultures. Even blind people exhibit the same body language, indicating it is innate, not learned. We would not waste our time and energy on shame if it wasn’t necessary for survival.

Shame enforces social norms. For our ancestors, the ability to maintain social cohesion was a matter of life or death. Take the almost ubiquitous social rule that states stealing is wrong. If a person is caught stealing, they are likely to feel some degree of shame. While this behavior may not threaten anyone’s survival today, in the past it could have been a sign that a group’s ability to cooperate was in jeopardy. Living in small groups in a harsh environment meant full cooperation was essential.

Through the lens of evolutionary biology, shame evolved to encourage adherence to beneficial social norms. This is backed up by the fact that shame is more prevalent in collectivist societies where people spend little to no time alone than it is in individualistic societies where people live more isolated lives.

Jennifer Jacquet argues in Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses For An Old Tool that we’re not quite through with shame yet. In fact, if we adapt it for the current era, it can help us to solve some of the most pressing problems we face. Shame gives the weak greater power. The difference is that we must shift shame from individuals to institutions, organizations, and powerful individuals. Jacquet states that her book “explores the origins and future of shame. It aims to examine how shaming—exposing a transgressor to public disapproval—a tool many of us find discomforting, might be retrofitted to serve us in new ways.”

Guilt vs. shame

Jacquet begins the book with the story of Sam LaBudde, a young man who in the 1980s became determined to target practices in the tuna-fishing industry leading to the deaths of dolphins. Tuna is often caught with purse seines, a type of large net that encloses around a shoal of fish. Seeing as dolphins tend to swim alongside tuna, they are easily caught in the nets. There, they either die or suffer serious injuries.

LaBudde got a job on a tuna-fishing boat and covertly filmed dolphins dying from their injuries. For months, he hid his true intentions from the crew, spending each day both dreading and hoping for the death of a dolphin. The footage went the 1980s equivalent of viral, showing up in the media all over the world and attracting the attention of major tuna companies.

Still a child at the time, Jacquet was horrified to learn of the consequences of the tuna her family ate. She recalls it as one of her first experiences of shame related to consumption habits. Jacquet persuaded her family to boycott canned tuna altogether. So many others did the same that companies launched the “dolphin-safe” label, which ostensibly indicated compliance with guidelines intended to reduce dolphin deaths. Jacquet returned to eating tuna and thought no more of it.

The campaign to end dolphin deaths in the tuna-fishing industry was futile, however, because it was built upon guilt rather than shame. Jacquet writes, “Guilt is a feeling whose audience and instigator is oneself, and its discomfort leads to self-regulation.” Hearing about dolphin deaths made consumers feel guilty about their fish-buying habits, which conflicted with their ethical values. Those who felt guilty could deal with it by purchasing supposedly dolphin-safe tuna—provided they had the means to potentially pay more and the time to research their choices. A better approach might have been for the videos to focus on tuna companies, giving the names of the largest offenders and calling for specific change in their policies.

But individuals changing their consumption habits did not stop dolphins from dying. It failed to bring about a structural change in the industry. This, Jacquet later realized, was part of a wider shift in environmental action. She explains that it became more about consumers’ choices:

As the focus shifted from supply to demand, shame on the part of corporations began to be overshadowed by guilt on the part of consumers—as the vehicle for solving social and environmental problems. Certification became more and more popular and its rise quietly suggested that responsibility should fall more to the individual consumer rather than to political society. . . . The goal became not to reform entire industries but to alleviate the consciences of a certain sector of consumers.

Shaming, as Jacquet defines it, is about the threat of exposure, whereas guilt is personal. Shame is about the possibility of an audience. Imagine someone were to send a print-out of your internet search history from the last month to your best friend, mother-in-law, partner, or boss. You might not have experienced any guilt making the searches, but even the idea of them being exposed is likely shame-inducing.

Switching the focus of the environmental movement from shame to guilt was, at best, a distraction. It put the responsibility on individuals, even though small actions like turning off the lights count for little. Guilt is a more private emotion, one that arises regardless of exposure. It’s what you feel when you’re not happy about something you did, whereas shame is what you feel when someone finds out. Jacquet writes, “A 2013 research paper showed that just ninety corporations (some of them state-owned) are responsible for nearly two-thirds of historic carbon dioxide and methane emissions; this reminds us that we don’t all share the blame for greenhouse gas emissions.” Guilt doesn’t work because it doesn’t change the system. Taking this into account, Jacquet believes it is time for us to bring back shame, “a tool that can work more quickly and at larger scales.”

The seven habits of effective shaming

So, if you want to use shame as a force for good, as an individual or as part of a group, how can you do so in an effective manner? Jacquet offers seven pointers.

Firstly, “The audience responsible for the shaming should be concerned with the transgression.” It should be something that impacts them so they are incentivized to use shaming to change it. If it has no effect on their lives, they will have little reason to shame. The audience must be the victim. For instance, smoking rates are shrinking in many countries. Part of this may relate to the tendency of non-smokers to shame smokers. The more the former group grows, the greater their power to shame. This works because second-hand smoke impacts their health too, as do indirect tolls like strain on healthcare resources and having to care for ill family members. As Jacquet says, “Shaming must remain relevant to the audience’s norms and moral framework.”

Second, “There should be a big gap between the desired and actual behavior.” The smaller the gap, the less effective the shaming will be. A mugger stealing a handbag from an elderly lady is one thing. A fraudster defrauding thousands of retirees out of their savings is quite another. We are predisposed to fairness in general and become quite riled up when unfairness is significant. In particular, Jacquet observes, we take greater offense when it is the fault of a small group, such as a handful of corporations being responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a matter of contrast. Jacquet cites her own research, which finds that “the degree of ‘bad’ relative to the group matters when it comes to bad apples.” The greater the contrast between the behavior of those being shamed and the rest of the group, the stronger the annoyance will be. For instance, the worse the level of pollution for a corporation is, the more people will shame it.

Third, “Formal punishment should be missing.” Shaming is most effective when it is the sole possible avenue for punishment and the transgression would otherwise go ignored. This ignites our sense of fury at injustice. Jacquet points out that the reason shaming works so well in international politics is that it is often a replacement for formal methods of punishment. If a nation commits major human rights abuses, it is difficult for another nation to use the law to punish them, as they likely have different laws. But revealing and drawing attention to the abuses may shame the nation into stopping, as they do not want to look bad to the rest of the world. When shame is the sole tool we have, we use it best.

Fourth, “The transgressor should be sensitive to the source of shaming.” The shamee must consider themselves subject to the same social norms as the shamer. Shaming an organic grocery chain for stocking unethically produced meat would be far more effective than shaming a fast-food chain for the same thing. If the transgressor sees themselves as subject to different norms, they are unlikely to be concerned.

Fifth, “The audience should trust the source of the shaming.” The shaming must come from a respectable, trustworthy, non-hypocritical source. If it does not, its impact is likely to be minimal. A news outlet that only shames one side of the political spectrum on a cross-spectrum issue isn’t going to have much impact.

Sixth, “Shaming should be directed where possible benefits are greatest.” We all have a limited amount of attention and interest in shaming. It should only be applied where it can have the greatest possible benefits and used sparingly, on the most serious transgressions. Otherwise, people will become desensitized, and the shaming will be ineffective. Wherever possible, we should target shaming at institutions, not individuals. Effective shaming focuses on the powerful, not the weak.

Seventh, “Shaming should be scrupulously implemented” Shaming needs to be carried out consistently. The threat can be more useful than the act itself, hence why it may need implementing on a regular basis. For instance, an annual report on the companies guilty of the most pollution is more meaningful than a one-off one. Companies know to anticipate it and preemptively change their behavior. Jacquet explains that “shame’s performance is optimized when people reform their behavior in response to its threat and remain part of the group. . . . Ideally, shaming creates some friction but ultimately heals without leaving a scar.”

To summarize, Jacquet writes: “When shame works without destroying anyone’s life, when it leads to reform and reintegration rather than fight or flight, or, even better, when it acts as a deterrent against bad behavior, shaming is performing optimally.”

***

Due to our negative experiences with shame on a personal level, we may be averse to viewing it in the light Jacquet describes: as an important and powerful tool. But “shaming, like any tool, is on its own amoral and can be used to any end, good or evil.” The way we use it is what matters.

According to Jacquet, we should not use shame to target transgressions that have minimal impact or are the fault of individuals with little power. We should use it when the outcome will be a broader benefit for society and when formal means of punishment have been exhausted. It’s important the shaming be proportional and done intentionally, not as a means of vindication.

Is Shame Necessary? is a thought-provoking read and a reminder of the power we have as individuals to contribute to meaningful change to the world. One way is to rethink how we view shame.

The Evolutionary Benefit of Friendship

Healthy friendships offer far more than a reliable person to share a beer with. Research shows they can make us healthier, wealthier, happier and overall more successful. Here’s how.

***

Is friendship important for our survival?

At first glance, the answer isn’t obvious. Other relationships get more play: romantic partners, parents and kids, families, professional networks. It’s easy to find books on improving your marriage or your relationship with your coworkers. The ability to create and maintain friendships, though, seems a bit taken for granted. Often it appears that either we all do it with relative ease, or we just don’t care. We have a feeling that neither of these is true.

Friendships require sustained effort that can often be just as confusing to navigate as a marriage. Over time they will go through ups and downs, face challenges from time pressures or geographical constraints, and have to resolve misunderstandings. And these are the good ones. We also have to try out many friends to find the ones who stick, and weed out the ones who turn out to be bad for us. And unlike our ancestors, we have to put a lot of effort into considering what is a friend, given the seemingly infinite number of connections we can make on social media.

Our ability to form relationships with people who aren’t related to us, however, is a critical skill that helped turn us into humans. It’s a fundamental part of who we are.

Biologically, our ability to develop and maintain social connections is directly related to the size of our brain. The research of Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s Number, one of our mental models), has demonstrated that because we are limited by our brain capacity, the fitness advantage of larger social groups was a driver in the evolution of parts of the brain. Other scientists have corroborated this idea that our larger brains are primarily a social versus ecological adaptation. It wasn’t because we happened to have a bigger brain for say, hunting, that we pursued complex social relationships, but rather that these relationships were critical for the evolutionary development of neocortical capacity. Friends made us smarter and gave us more potential.

Looking at ourselves through a biological lens also suggests that one of the obvious advantages to friendships is the diversity they create. If you are being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, it would be nice to be able to rely on more than one individual for help. And, perhaps more importantly, your chances of thwarting the tiger are increased if you are part of a tribe that includes people with different skill sets. Someone who understands tiger behavior, someone who can kill it, and someone who can treat any resulting wounds could be helpful. Furthermore, being part of this diverse group means that when the environment changes, someone can likely adapt and lead the way for everyone else.

In a modern context, having diversity in our relationships has multiple applications. For one, it doesn’t make much sense to put all your emotional eggs in one basket. Committed romantic partners are wonderful, but if they die the last thing you want to be is alone. Your survival is quite literally dependent on having close friends who can support you through the hard times. And having friends with different specialties, interests, strengths and weaknesses can help us test out ideas and develop our character by giving us a safe space to experiment.

What about the value of friends who are smarter or better at the things we aspire to do? As in dealing with the tiger, friends with different talents can help us realize our own potential.

In her book The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver provides a convincing argument for the value of friends. They are worth it for the benefit to cardiovascular health alone! Interestingly, she writes that “social integration and close relationships are the most important predictors of mortality, well above things like alcohol consumption, exercise and diet.” With a network of reliable friends, we live longer and in better health. And good friends make us feel good. There is a reciprocity that Leaver explores in all sorts of manifestations, demonstrating just how amazing friendships can be for the quality of our lives.

The value of friendship has been evident for a long time. Aristotle devoted a good part of the Nicomachean Ethics to contemplating friendship, but took it as self-evident that friends were important. He wrote, “for no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Defining what makes a good friend, fine, he could spend some time on that, but there was no doubt that friendship itself was “a necessary component of happiness.”

To really see the value of friends, think of your social ecosystem, the web of interpersonal connections that you engage with as you live your life. Leaver asks, “what do we get from friendship that we don’t get from romantic relationships, family or work?” When you answer this question, you’ll see where your friends fit.

The answers are going to be different for everyone. It could be that friends provide you with a place to go to admit your fears and frustrations without being judged, or a history of yourself that you tap into to keep you grounded, or someone to go to axe throwing with on Thursday nights. The point is, we can get profound positives from friends that we cannot get in our other relationships.

We become who we are in great part because of the friends we have. — Alexander Nehamas

Aristotle also said that “though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not.” Yes, they do take work. But the good news is that if you put some effort into learning what it means to be a good friend, the rest isn’t going to feel like work at all. Why? Alexander Nehamas writes in On Friendship that friendship “provides companionship and a safety net when we are in various kinds of trouble; it offers sympathy for our misfortunes, discretion for our secrets, encouragement for our efforts.”

So why does friendship seem to get relegated to the bottom of our relationship endeavors? Leaver argues that “we’ve built a culture of individuality without knowing how to be alone successfully or how to truly combat loneliness.” If friendship becomes another check box on your daily to-do list, you’re probably not going to feel like you actually have friends. That kind of social interaction is going to feel more stressful than beneficial, and consequently you will likely start to avoid it.

A further consideration is that friendship seems to go by the wayside as we pursue the things we believe we need to consider ourselves successful. Material goods, titles, fame, a large number of social media followers. Whatever.

But Leaver’s point is that friends are actually a key component of success. Without them we become isolated and vulnerable to loneliness, pain, and poor health. With them we live longer, with more laughter and less fear, and a higher quality of life. Doesn’t that sound like something worth some effort?

5 Mental Models to Remove (Some of) the Confusion from Parenting

We often talk about mental models in the context of business, investing, and careers. But mental models can also help with other areas, like parenting. Here are 5 principle-based models you can apply to any family, any situation, and any child.

***

Just a few days ago, I saw a three-year-old wandering around at 10:30 at night and wondered if he was lost or jet-lagged. The parent came over and explained that they believed in children setting their own sleep schedule.

Interesting.

The problem with this approach is that it may work, or it may not. It may work for your oldest, but not your youngest. And therein lies the problem with the majority of the parenting advice available. It’s all tactics, no principles.

Few topics provoke more unsolicited advice than parenting. The problem is, no matter how good the advice, it might not work for your child. Parenting is the ultimate “the map is not the territory“ situation. There are so many maps out there, and often when we try to use them to navigate the territory that is each individual child, we end up lost and confused. As in other situations, when the map doesn’t match the territory, better to get rid of the map and pay attention to what you are experiencing on the ground. The territory is the reality.

We’ve all dealt with the seemingly illogical behavior of children. Take trying to get your child to sleep through the night—often the first, and most important, challenge. Do you sleep beside them and slowly work your way out of the room? Do you let them “cry it out?” Do you put them in your bed? Do you feed them on demand, or not until morning? Soft music or no music? The options are endless, and each of them has a decently researched book to back it up.

When any subsequent children come along, the problem is often exacerbated. You stick to what worked the first time, because it worked, but this little one is different. Now you’re in a battle of wills, and it’s hard to change your tactics at 3:00 a.m. Parenting is often a rinse and repeat of this scenario: ideas you have about how it should be, combined with what experience is telling you that it is, overlaid with too many options and chronic exhaustion.

This is where mental models can help. As in any other area of your life, developing some principles or models that help you see how the world works will give you options for relevant and useful solutions. Mental models are amazing tools that can be applied across our lives. Here are five principle-based models you can apply to almost any family, situation, or child. These are ones I use often, but don’t let this limit you—so many more apply!

1. Adaptation

Adaptation is a concept from evolutionary biology. It describes the development of genetic traits that are successful relative to their performance in a specific environment—that is, relative to organisms’ survival in the face of competitive pressures. As Geerat Vermeij explains in Nature: An Economic History, “Adaptation is as good as it has to be; it need not be the best that could be designed. Adaptation depends on context.”

In terms of parenting, this is a big one: the model we can use to stop criticizing ourselves for our inevitable parenting mistakes, to get out of the no-point comparisons with our peers, and to give us the freedom to make changes depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Species adapt. It is a central feature of the theory of evolution—the ability of a species to survive and thrive in the face of changing environmental conditions. So why not apply this basic biological idea to parenting? Too often we see changing as a weakness. We’re certain that if we aren’t absolutely consistent with our children, they will grow up to be entitled underachievers or something. Or we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, and strive for an ideal that requires an insane amount of work and sacrifice that may actually be detrimental to our overall success.

We can get out of this type of thinking if we reframe ‘changing’ as ‘adapting’. It’s okay to have different rules in the home versus a public space. I am always super grateful when a parent pacifies a screaming child with a cookie, especially on an airplane or in a restaurant. They probably don’t use the same strategy at home, but they adapt to the different environment. It’s also okay to have two children in soccer, and the third in music. Adapting to their interests will offer a much better return of investment on all those lessons.

No doubt your underlying goals for your children are consistent, like the desire of an individual to survive. How you meet those goals is where the adaptability comes in. Give yourself the freedom to respond to the individual characteristics of your children—and the specific needs of the moment—by trying different behaviors to see what works. And, just as with adaptation in the biological sense, you only need to be as good as you have to be to get the outcomes that are important to you, not be the best parent that ever was.

2. Velocity

There is a difference between speed and velocity. With speed you move, but with velocity you move somewhere. You have direction.

As many have said of parenting, the days are long but the years are short. It’s hard to be focusing on your direction when homework needs to be done and dinner needs to get made before one child goes off in the carpool to soccer while you rush the other one to art class. Every day begins at a dead run and ends with you collapsing into bed only to go through it all again tomorrow. Between their activities and social lives, and your need to work and have time for yourself, there is no doubt that you move with considerable speed throughout your day.

But it’s useful to sometimes ask, ‘Where am I going?’ Take a moment to make sure it’s not all speed and no direction.

When it comes to time with your kids, what does the goal state look like? How do you move in that direction? If you are just speeding without moving then you have no frame of reference for your choices. You might ask, did I spend enough time with them today? But ten minutes or two hours isn’t going to impact your velocity if you don’t know where you are headed.

When you factor in a goal of movement, it helps you decide what to do when you have time with them. What is it you want out of it? What kind of memories do you want them to have? What kind of parent do you want to be and what kind of children do you want to raise? The answers are different for everyone, but knowing the direction you wish to go helps you evaluate the decisions you make. And it might have the added benefit of cutting out some unnecessary activity and slowing you down.

3. Algebraic Equivalence

“He got more pancakes than I did!” Complaints about fairness are common among siblings. They watch each other like hawks, counting everything from presents to hugs to make sure everyone gets the same. What can you do? You can drive yourself mad running out to buy an extra whatever, or you can teach your children the difference between ‘same’ and ‘equal’.

If you haven’t solved for x in a while, it doesn’t really matter. In algebra, symbols are used to represent unknown numbers that can be solved for given other relevant information. The general point about algebraic equivalence is that it teaches us that two things need not be the same in order to be equal.

For example, x + y = 5. Here are some of the options for the values of x and y:

3 + 2

4 + 1

2.5 + 2.5

1.8 + 3.2

And those are just the simple ones. What is useful is this idea of abstracting to see what the full scope of possibilities are. Then you can demonstrate that what is on each side of those little parallel lines doesn’t have to look the same to have equal value. When it comes to the pancakes, it’s better to focus on an equal feeling of fullness than the number of pancakes on the plate.

In a deeper way, algebraic equivalence helps us deal with one accusation that all parents get at one time or another: “You love my sibling more than me.” It’s not true, but our default usually is to say, “No, I love you both the same.” This can be confusing for children, because, after all, they are not the same as their sibling, and you likely interact with them differently, so how can the love be the same?

Using algebraic equivalence as a model shifts it. You can respond instead that you love them both equally. Even though what’s on either side of the equation is different, it is equal. Swinging the younger child up in the air is equivalent to asking the older one about her school project. Appreciating one’s sense of humor is equivalent to respecting the other’s organizational abilities. They may be different, but the love is equal.

4. Seizing the Middle

In chess, the middle is the key territory to hold. As explained on Wikipedia: “The center is the most important part of the chessboard, as pieces from the center can easily move to either flank with great speed. However, amateurs often prefer to concentrate on the king’s side of the board. This is an incorrect mindset.”

In parenting, seizing the middle means you must forget trying to control every single move. It’s impossible anyway. Instead, focus on trying to control what I think of as the middle territory. I don’t mind losing a few battles on the fringes, if I’m holding my ground in the area that will allow me to respond quickly to problems.

The other night my son and I got into perhaps our eighth fight of the week on the state of his room. The continual explosion makes it hard to walk in there, plus he loses things all the time, which is an endless source of frustration to both of us. I’ve explained that I hate buying replacements only to have them turn up in the morass months later.

So I got cranky and got on his case again, and he felt bad and cried again. When I went to the kitchen to find some calm, I realized that my strategy was all wrong. I was focused on the pawn in the far column of the chess board instead of what the pieces were doing right in front of me.

My thinking then went like this: what is the territory I want to be present in? Continuing the way I was would lead to a clean room, maybe. But by focusing on this flank I was sacrificing control of the middle. Eventually he was going to tune me out because no one wants to feel bad about their shortcomings every day. Is it worth saving a pawn if it leaves your queen vulnerable?

The middle territory with our kids is mutual respect and trust. If I want my son to come to me for help when life gets really complicated, which I do, then I need to focus on behaviors that will allow me to have that strategic influence throughout my relationship with him. Making him feel like crap every day, because his shirts are mixed in with his pants or because of all the Pokemon cards are on the floor, isn’t going to cut it. Make no mistake, seizing the middle is not about throwing out all the rules. This is about knowing which battles to fight, so you can keep the middle territory of the trust and respect of your child.

5. Inversion

Sometimes it’s not about providing solutions, but removing obstacles. Sociologist Kurt Lewin observes in his work on force field analysis[1] that reaching any goal has two components: augmenting the forces for, and removing the forces against. When it comes to parenting, we need to ask ourselves not only what we could be doing more of, but also what we could be doing less of.

When my friend was going on month number nine of her baby waking up four times a night, she felt at her wits’ end. Out of desperation, she decided to invert the problem. She had been trying different techniques and strategies, thinking that there was something she wasn’t doing right. When nothing seemed to be working, she stopped trying to add elements like new tactics, and changed her strategy. She looked instead for obstacles to remove. Was there anything preventing the baby from sleeping through the night?

The first night she made it darker. No effect. The second night she made it warmer. Her son has slept through the night ever since. It wasn’t her parenting skills or the adherence to a particular sleep philosophy that was causing him to wake up so often. Her baby was cold. Once she removed that obstacle with a space heater the problem was resolved.

We do this all the time, trying to fix problem by throwing new parenting philosophies at the situation. What can I do better? More time, more money, more lessons, more stuff. But it can be equally valuable to look for what you could be doing less of. In so doing, you may enrich your relationships with your children immeasurably.

Parenting is inherently complex: the territory changes almost overnight. Different environments, different children—figuring out how to raise your kids plays out against a backdrop of some fast-paced evolution. Some tactics are great, and once in a while a technique fits the situation perfectly. But when your tactics fail, or your experience seems to provide no obvious direction, a principle-based mental models approach to parenting can give you the insight to find solutions as you go.

[1] Lewin’s original work on force field analysis can be found in Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Immigration, Extinction, and Island Equilibrium

Equilibrium is an important concept that permeates many disciplines. In chemistry we think about the point where the rate of forward reaction is equal to the rate of backward reaction. In economics we think of the point where supply equals demand. In physics we can see how gravity is balanced by forward velocity to create things like planetary orbits.

No matter which discipline we are examining, the core idea remains the same: Equilibrium is a state where opposing forces are balanced.

In biology, equilibrium is so important that it can mean the difference between life or death; for a species, it can decide whether they will thrive or become extinct.

In The Song of the DodoDavid Quammen dives into how equilibrium affects a species’ ability to survive, and how it impacts our ability to save animals on the brink of extinction.

***

Historically, the concept of island equilibrium was studied with a focus on the interplay between evolution (as the additive) and extinction (as the subtractive). It was believed that speciation, the process where one species becomes two or more species, caused any increase in the number of inhabitants on an island. In this view, the insularity of islands created a remoteness that could only be overcome by the long processes of evolution. 

However, Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson, the co-authors of the influential Theory of Island Biogeography, realized that habitats would show a tendency towards equilibrium much sooner than could be accounted for by speciation. They argued the ongoing processes that most influenced this balance were immigration and extinction.

The type of extinctions we’re referring to in this case are local extinctions, specific to the island in question. A species can go extinct on a particular island and yet be thriving elsewhere; it depends on local conditions.

As for immigration, it’s just what you’d expect: The movement of species from one place to another. Island immigration describes the many ingenious ways in which plants, animals, and insects travel to islands. For instance, not only will insects hitch rides on birds and debris (man made or natural, think garbage and sticks/uprooted seaweed), animals will do the same if the debris is massive enough.

Seeds, meanwhile, make the trip in the feces of birds, which helps to introduce new plant species to the island, while highly motivated swimmers (escapees of natural disasters/predators/famine) and hitchhikers on human ships (think rats) make it over in their own unusual ways.

We can plot this process of immigration and extinction graphically, in a way you’re probably familiar with. Quammen explains:

picture1

The decrease in immigration rate and the increase in extinction rate are graphed not against elapsed time but against the number of species present on a given island. As an island fills up with species, immigration declines and extinction increases, until they offset each other at an equilibrium level. At that level, the rate of continuing immigration is just canceled by the rate of continuing extinction, and there is no net gain or loss of species. The phenomenon of offsetting increase and decrease – the change of identities on the roster of species – is known as turnover. One species of butterfly arrives, another species of butterfly dies out, and in the aftermath the island has the same number of butterfly species as before. Equilibrium with turnover.

So while the specific species inhabiting the island will change over time, the numbers will tend to roll towards a balanced point where the two curves intersect.

Of course, not all equilibrium graphs will look the like one above. Indeed, MacArthur and Wilson hoped this theory would be used not just to explain equilibriums, but to also help predict potential issues.

When either curve is especially steep – reflecting the fact that immigration decreases especially sharply or extinction increases especially sharply – their crossing point shifts leftward, toward zero. The shift means that, at equilibrium, in this particular set of circumstances, there will be relatively few resident species.

In other words, high extinction and low immigration yield an impoverished ecosystem. To you and me it’s a dot in Cartesian space, but to an island it represents destiny.

There are two key ideas that can help us understand the equilibrium point on a given island.

First, the concept of species-area relationship: We see a larger number of a given species on larger islands and a smaller number of a given species on smaller islands.

Second, the concept of species quantity on remote islands: Immigration is much more difficult the further away an island is from either a mainland or a cluster of other islands, meaning that fewer species will make it there.

In other words, size and remoteness are directly correlated to the fragility of any given species inhabiting an island.

***

Equilibrium, immigration, evolution, extinction – these are all ideas that bleed into so many more areas than biogeography. What happens to groups when they are isolated? Jared Diamond had some interesting thoughts on that. What happens to products or businesses which don’t keep up with co-evolution? They go extinct due to the Red Queen Effect. What happens to our mind and body when we feel off balance? Our life is impoverished.

Reading a book like The Song of the Dodo helps us to better understand these key concepts which, in turn, helps us more fundamentally understand the world.

The Green Lumber Fallacy: The Difference between Talking and Doing

“Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking..”

— Nassim Taleb

“All that glitters is not gold,” the saying goes. We’re often fooled by aesthetics of things into thinking they are the thing. The gist of the Green Lumber Fallacy is this: What works in the real world is not necessarily match our stories of why it works. Unimportant details can often seduce us into thinking we know the reasons for something when we really don’t. Only time filters reality from narrative.

***

Before we get to the meat, let’s review an elementary idea in biology that will be relevant to our discussion.

If you’re familiar with evolutionary theory, you know that populations of organisms are constantly subjected to “selection pressures” — the rigors of their environment which lead to certain traits being favored and passed down to their offspring and others being thrown into the evolutionary dustbin.

Biologists dub these advantages in reproduction “fitness” — as in, the famously lengthening of giraffe necks gave them greater “fitness” in their environment because it helped them reach high up, untouched leaves.

Fitness is generally a relative concept: Since organisms must compete for scarce resources, their fitnesses is measured in the sense of giving a reproductive advantage over one another.

Just as well, a trait that might provide great fitness in one environment may be useless or even disadvantageous in another. (Imagine draining a pond: Any fitness advantages held by a really incredible fish becomes instantly worthless without water.) Traits also relate to circumstance. An advantage at one time could be a disadvantage at another and vice versa.

This makes fitness an all-important concept in biology: Traits are selected for if they provide fitness to the organism within a given environment.

Got it? OK, let’s get back to the practical world.

***

The Black Swan thinker Nassim Taleb has an interesting take on fitness and selection in the real world:  People who are good “doers” and people who are good “talkers” are often selected for different traits. Be careful not to mix them up.

In his book Antifragile, Taleb uses this idea to invoke a heuristic he’d once used when hiring traders on Wall Street:

The more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).

Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible–they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don’t talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

In other words, the selection pressures for an entrepreneur are very different from those on a corporate manager or bureaucrat: Entrepreneurs and risk-takers succeed or fail not so much on their ability to talk, explain, and rationalize as their ability to get things done.

While the two can often go together, Nassim figured out that they frequently don’t. We judge people as ignorant when it’s really us who are ignorant.

When you think about it, there’s no a priori reason great intellectualizing and great doing must go together: Being able to hack together an incredible piece of code gives you great fitness in the world of software development while doing great theoretical computer science probably gives you better fitness in academia. The two skills don’t have to be connected. Great economists don’t usually make great investors.

But we often confuse the two realms.  We’re tempted to think that a great investor must be fluent in behavioral economics or a great CEO fluent in Mckinsey-esque management narratives, but in the real world, we see this intuition constantly in violation.

The investor Walter Schloss worked from 9-5, barely left his office, and wasn’t considered an entirely high IQ man, but he compiled one of the great investment records of all time. A young Mark Zuckerberg could hardly be described as a prototypical manager or businessperson, yet somehow built one of the most profitable companies in the world by finding others that complemented his weaknesses.

There are a thousand examples: Our narratives about the type of knowledge or experience we must have or the type of people we must be in order to become successful are often quite wrong; in fact, they border on naive. We think people who talk well can do well, and vice versa. This is simply not always so.

We won’t claim that great doers cannot be great talkers, rationalizers, or intellectuals. Sometimes they are. But if you’re seeking to understand the world properly, it’s good to understand that the two traits are not always co-located. Success, especially in some “narrow” area like plumbing, programming, trading, or marketing, is often achieved by rather non-intellectual folks. Their evolutionary fitness doesn’t come from the ability to talk but do. This is part of reality.

The Green Lumber Fallacy

Taleb calls this idea the Green Lumber Fallacy, after a story in the book What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars.

Taleb describes it in Antifragile:

In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move and went bust.

It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant.

The fact that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most non-narrative manager — nice arguments don’t make much difference. Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.

So let us call the green lumber fallacy the situation in which one mistakes a source of visible knowledge — the greenness of lumber — for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.

The main takeaway is that the real causative factors of success are often hidden from usWe think that knowing the intricacies of green lumber are more important than keeping a close eye on the order flow. We seduce ourselves into overestimating the impact of our intellectualism and then wonder why “idiots” are getting ahead.

But for “skin in the game” operations, selection and evolution don’t care about great talk and ideas unless they translate into results. They care what you do with the thing more than that you know the thing. They care about actually avoiding risk rather than your extensive knowledge of risk management theories. (Of course, in many areas of modernity there is no skin in the game, so talking and rationalizing can be and frequently are selected for.)

As Taleb did with his hiring heuristic, this should teach us to be a little skeptical of taking good talkers at face value, and to be a little skeptical when we see “unexplainable” success in someone we consider “not as smart.” There might be a disconnect we’re not seeing because we’re seduced by a narrative. (A problem someone like Lee Kuan Yew avoided by focusing exclusively on what worked.)

And we don’t have to give up our intellectual pursuits in order to appreciate this nugget of wisdom; Taleb is right, but it’s also true that combining the rigorous, skeptical knowledge of “what actually works” with an ever-improving theory structure of the world might be the best combination of all — selected for in many more environments than simple git-er-done ability, which can be extremely domain and environment dependent. (The green lumber guy might not have been much good outside the trading room.)

After all, Taleb himself was both a successful trader and the highest level of intellectual. Even he can’t resist a little theorizing.

What Can Chain Letters Teach us about Natural Selection?

“It is important to understand that none of these replicating entities is consciously interested in getting itself duplicated. But it will just happen that the world becomes filled with replicators that are more efficient.”

***

In 1859, Charles Darwin first described his theory of evolution through natural selection in The Origin of Species. Here we are, 157 years later, and although it has become an established fact in the field of biology, its beauty is still not that well understood among the populace. I think that’s because it’s slightly counter-intuitive. Unlike string theory or quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution through natural selection is pretty easily obtainable by most.

So, is there a way we can help ourselves understand the theory in an intuitive way, so we can better go on applying it to other domains? I think so, and it comes from an interesting little volume released in 1995 by the biologist Richard Dawkins called River Out of Eden. But first, let’s briefly head back to the Origin of Species, so we’re clear on what we’re trying to understand.

***

In the fourth chapter of the book, entitled “Natural Selection,” Darwin describes a somewhat cold and mechanistic process for the development of species: If species had heritable traits and variation within their population, they would survive in different numbers, and those most adapted to survival would thrive and pass on those traits to successive generations. Eventually, new species would arise, slowly, as enough variation and differential reproduction acted on the population to create a de facto branch in the family tree.

Here’s the original description.

Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

[…]

In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favored the individuals of any species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.

[…]

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejection that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. 

The beauty of the theory is in its simplicity. The mechanism of evolution is, at root, a simple one. An unguided one. Better descendants outperform lesser ones in a competitive world and are more successful at replicating. Traits that improve the survival of their holder in its current environment tend to be preserved and amplified over time. This is hard to see in real time, although some examples are helpful in understanding the concept, e.g. antibiotic resistance.

Darwin’s idea didn’t take as quickly as we might like to think. In The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen talks about the period after the release of the groundbreaking work, in which the world had trouble coming to grips with Darwin’s theory. It was not the case, as it might seem today, that the world simply threw up its hands and accepted Darwin as a genius. This is a lesson in and of itself. It was quite the contrary:

By the 1890s, natural selection as Darwin had defined it–that is, differential reproductive success resulting from small, undirected variations and serving as the chief mechanism of adaption and divergence–was considered by many evolutionary biologists to have been a wrong guess.

It wasn’t until Gregor Mendel’s peas showed how heritability worked that Darwin’s ideas were truly vindicated against his rivals’. So if we have trouble coming to terms with evolution by natural selection in the modern age, we’re not alone: So did Darwin’s peers.

***

What’s this all got to do with chain letters? Well, in Dawkins’ River Out of Eden, he provides an analogy for the process of evolution through natural selection that is quite intuitive, and helpful in understanding the simple power of the idea. How would a certain type of chain letter come to dominate the population of all chain letters? It would work the same way.

A simple example is the so-called chain letter. You receive in the mail a postcard on which is written: “Make six copies of this card and send them to six friends within a week. If you do not do this, a spell will be cast upon you and you will die in horrible agony within a month.” If you are sensible you will throw it away. But a good percentage of people are not sensible; they are vaguely intrigued, or intimidated by the threat, and send six copies of it to other people. Of these six, perhaps two will be persuaded to send it on to six other people. If, on average, 1/3 of the people who receive the card obey the instructions written on it, the number of cards in circulation will double every week. In theory, this means that the number of cards in circulation after one year will be 2 to the power of 52, or about four thousand trillion. Enough post cards to smother every man, woman, and child in the world.

Exponential growth, if not checked by the lack of resources, always leads to startlingly large-scale results in a surprisingly short time. In practice, resources are limited and other factors, too, serve to limit exponential growth. In our hypothetical example, individuals will probably start to balk when the same chain letter comes around to them for the second time. In the competition for resources, variants of the same replicator may arise that happen to be more efficient at getting themselves duplicated. These more efficient replicators will tend to displace their less efficient rivals. It is important to understand that none of these replicating entities is consciously interested in getting itself duplicated. But it will just happen that the world becomes filled with replicators that are more efficient.

In the case of the chain letter, being efficient may consist in accumulating a better collection of words on the paper. Instead of the somewhat implausible statement that “if you don’t obey the words on the card you will die in horrible agony within a month,” the message might change to “Please, I beg of you, to save your soul and mine, don’t take the risk: if you have the slightest doubt, obey the instructions and send the letter to six more people.”

Such “mutations” happen again and again, and the result will eventually be a heterogenous population of messages all in circulation, all descended from the same original ancestor but differing in detailed wording and in the strength and nature of the blandishments they employ. The variants that are more successful will increase in frequency at the expense of less successful rivals. Success is simply synonymous with frequency in circulation. 

The chain letter contains all of the elements of biological natural selection except one: Someone had to write the first chain letter. The first replicating biological entity, on the other hand, seems to have sprung up from an early chemical brew.

Consider this analogy an intermediate mental “step” towards the final goal. Because we know and appreciate the power of reasoning by analogy and metaphor, we can deduce that finding an appropriate analogy is one of the best ways to pound an idea into your head–assuming it is a correct idea that should be pounded in.

And because evolution through natural selection is one of the more powerful ideas a human being has ever had, it seems worth our time to pound this one in for good and start applying it elsewhere if possible. (For example, Munger has talked about how business evolves in a manner such that competitive results are frequently similar to biological outcomes.)

Read Dawkins’ book in full for a deeper look at his views on replication and natural selection. It’s shorter than some of his other works, but worth the time.