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
a few months back). It was such a transparent marketing move that it
was parodied in The
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
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