Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
July 2017

World's Finest

This is how big a geek I am. When I was a kid during the 1970s and 80s I actually liked the crossover comics: the Brave & the Bold with Batman, Marvel Team-Up with Spider-Man, and especially Marvel Two-In-One with the Thing. These were titles where B/C/D-listers would be given a boost by pairing them with someone more popular. DC Comics Presents took this one step further by following its Superman partner-of-the-month lead with a back-up story titled “Whatever Happened to . . . ?” (like what I did with memetics a few months back). It was such a transparent marketing move that it was parodied in The Maxx:

“Cartoons these days are so pretentious!
The Crapon in a Hat teams up with Jean-Paul Sartre
to fight nausea!
Sounds like a losing battle to me!”

Still, I loved them, especially the “Project Pegasus” storyline in MTIO, where Ben Grimm falls into a job as chief of security at a government lab studying alternative energy (i.e., using captured super-villains as batteries). Even given that bit of developmental history, I was unreasonably delighted to see this paper, which pairs evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, whom I have mentioned here before, with Steven C. Hayes (no relation), a clinical psychologist at the University of Reno whose work on depression I have found both theoretically interesting and practically useful in my own life. So here’s my quick summary of “Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change.”

Part 1 lays out the aim, namely to heal the rift between the natural and social sciences, through the soothing and clinically proven balm of evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, despite the fact that economics still rules the world, social scientists in general are under-funded, and that difference in power and prestige taints everything they hear from the mouths of the “natural sciences” with suspicion. (Relations with scholars of the humanities are even worse.)

Part 2 surveys the twentieth century history of theoretical and political pissing matches between Nature and Nurture (a caricature I really really hate) and tries to point out where both sides have gone wrong by invoking the concept of a “Darwin machine,” an evolved thing that itself carries out an open-ended process of evolution through the use of variation, selection, and inheritance. The differing mechanisms that embody those processes are important, but secondary to the authors’ point, which is that similarities abound. Bodies and brains are examples of genetic Darwin machines; individual behavior is an example of evolution through reinforcement learning (a.k.a. a “Skinner machine”?); and cultures evolve as symbol-processing Darwin machines.

Part 3 is where things get practical, with examples from individual and family psychotherapy (Hayes’s field); the design of policy in small groups like neighborhoods and schools (Wilson) and large-scale public health “prevention science” projects like convincing convenience stores not to sell cigarettes to minors (Biglan and Embry). In all of their cherry-picked but rigorously documented cases, thinking in evolutionary terms helps to make sense of why these projects succeeded when other projects failed. As a casualty of one such mostly failed large-scale educational reform effort at the university level, I can testify that what system theorists call suboptimization is real, and it’s a bitch. Long-term benefits are not enough, and as the authors say repeatedly, “Evolution can take you where you don’t want to go.”

Pandas are the poster bears for that statement, although koalas and tree sloths used the same evolutionary strategy of minimizing their metabolisms, and are in the same difficult position in terms of extinction risk. After millions of years, pandas are still in the process of specializing a carnivore’s teeth and short gut towards eating bamboo, which is plentiful in mass but low-quality, nutritionally. Their low-energy diet leaves them behaviorally slow. They breed slowly, as well. Compare pandas with humans, who eat more calorie-dense foods (including meat), allowing for a shortened gut. Our ancestors put that extra energy into building huge brains and overlapping our children in order to increase our breeding rates.

Although I feel sorry for pandas, and occasionally I clench my teeth over politics (academic and non-), it was the section on child abuse that struck me the hardest.

More than 40 years of research . . . shows how high levels of coercive interactions can be selected for within families in a tragic coevolutionary race to the bottom . . . . Each family member learns that if others are behaving in an unpleasant manner (e.g., critizicing, teasing, attacking) then escalating . . . will frequently cause the others to stop momentarily.”

In other words, people beat their kids because it gets them what they want, in the short term, even though it damages the relationship and the child’s prospects in the long term. As the more testosterone-laden parent of a healthy and rebellious testosterone-laden teenager, this was an important cautionary tale for me. I have never hit my child, and I don’t want to, ever—except sometimes when I do want to, momentarily, just like everyone else does. My point is that an evolutionary perspective allows me to see the process, how easily choices can snowball from arguing to yelling to violence. More importantly, it allows me to see that each of those events is a choice, that no outcome is inevitable, that I can choose an outcome and work towards it.

I agree wholeheartedly with David Brin, who has been arguing for years now that SF needs to turn away from pointless scary dystopias towards the solving of real problems (Neal Stephenson has said similar things). None of us is advocating for a boring perfection in fiction. We will never run out of problems to solve, in the sense that problems will magically go away. We can only get better at managing our problems, and I personally see this paper’s evolutionary approach as a step in the right direction.

Going beyond Brin’s artistic call to arms, I will point out that “Evolving the Future” is missing its part 4—the contribution of existing art to solving our many problems. Some of the best examples have been produced outside the US. Since 1975, when Mexican TV producer Miguel Sabido began producing telenovelas for public health purposes, governments and nonprofits around the world have been using various forms of edutainment to improve the lives of millions of people. My favorite account, Two Aspirins and a Comedy, by sociologist Metta Spencer, is mostly restricted to television. There are other good examples, a couple of which I list in the References.

Randall Hayes, Ph.D, has adventured with a number of superheroes, including Buckethead and the Rake (from Akron). He’s still working on an appropriate nom de guerre. Feel free to suggest one at the PlotBot Facebook page.



A fan made this “Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Home Page!” to index Mr. Grimm’s appearances.





Another strikingly complete fan page.


And another, where new artists re-create old images. Weird.


proper citation: BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2014) 37, 395–460 doi:10.1017/S0140525X13001593

This is not to suggest in any way that Anthony Biglan and Dennis D. Embry are anything less than A-listers, just because I had not stumbled across their previous adventures; it was more a comment on the unexpectedness of the Wilson/Hayes pairing.


The trend they describe here is good, but has a long way to go.




Specifically the May 10 entry, “Nature X Nurture, not Nature Vs Nurture.”



The headline is clickbait. Although pandas have been claimed by creationists, it’s not a focus of the article, which is straight-up panda science.



Due to low levels of thyroid hormones. The author of this paper disagrees with me that slowness is a liability, long-term.


As Ed Yong says, this expensive tissue hypothesis is attractive and intuitive, but still controversial 20 years later.



Of course, a pointy dystopia is an entirely different thing.





The first chapter, laying out the general idea, is online for free, and there are a number of web extras, like interview transcripts.


Designs games to save the world, and then runs clinical trials to show that they work.




Read more by Randall Hayes

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