Thursday, 17 May 2012

Darwinian Politics and risk-seeking behaviour

I love Paul Rubin's "Darwinian Politics". Rubin argues that existing political preferences around things like fairness, inequality, altruism, and group affiliation can really be traced back to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness - the 50,000 years or so that modern-form humans spent in the Pleistocene. I often teach the book as part of my graduate-level public choice class.

Jason Collins reviews the book here and notes the one part of the book with which I disagreed:
Rubin’s least libertarian finding, apart from his implied support of restrictions on polygamy, relates to restrictions on drugs and other “anti-social” activities. Rubin argues that if consumption of these goods and activities is a form of competition between young males to signal status, restrictions on their use will be required to prevent above optimal use. While Rubin considers that the need to maintain a society’s prime age men at fighting strength is weaker than in our evolutionary past, a case can still be made for this form of control. It was interesting that Rubin chose to use a signaling argument at this point as he does not address the role of signaling in most of his analysis, such as in his discussion of “altruistic” gifts of game in ancestral societies or donations to charity.
I find this argument wholly unsatisfying. I agree with Rubin that the age-profile of risk preference looks like it's set in the EEA. But the policy implications of that are a lot less obvious than Rubin makes out. If we're hardwired to demonstrate ability to bear risk when we're in our mid to late teens, then banning one form of risk-taking is very likely to push risk-taking demonstrations over onto other margins. It's then manifestly unclear whether we improve or worsen outcomes when we ban youth access to consumption activities whose risks are relatively well understood and the use of which is at least relatively well socialised as it depends onto what other margins the kids switch. If everybody switches to bungee jumping, that's probably better; if everybody switches to car surfing, that's worse.

Where at least some youth alcohol demand is derived from an underlying preference for demonstrating fitness to bear risk, we have to worry about the other margins on which the underlying preference can be expressed if we want to push down on one part of the balloon.

I worry for similar reasons about Veblen-themed arguments about reducing status competition through income taxes. If we're hard-wired to be status-seeking animals, isn't it better that that status-seeking is channelled into productive outlets, like earning money by working hard to meet the needs of others, than less productive or downright harmful alternatives, like jousting, tournaments, or feats of military valour? As I'd wondered a few years ago after Robin Hanson provided some data on the relative positionality of different types of activities:
If humans are status-seekers, which seems highly likely given how sexual selection works, then high marginal tax rates just push status-seeking onto the other dimensions identified by Hanson. Which then gives us some testable hypotheses: do countries with heavy income redistribution see greater spending on education, more time investment in sport, more money and time spent on personal beauty and exercise (all normalized for income, of course)? I wouldn't know where to start looking for the data, but I'd be keen to see the results.
I'll have to dig around a bit to see whether that kind of cross-national data exists: potentially another topic for the future honours projects file.


  1. Interesting stuff indeed. I'd never considered late-teen/early-twenties excesses as a risk-taking signal of suitability as a mate, but more as a reaction to the domestic shackles having been thrown off and a chance to explore aspects of life experiences previously denied under the more restrictive regime imposed by parental oversight. Couched in evolutionary terms is does make more sense of some of the stupid things we do as young folk. I did plenty of dumb stuff as a student but I was a big nerd and had few if any female acquaintances at the time, so such displays served no real purpose other than perhaps a signal of acceptability within my peer group. The question I ask is whether young women respond positively to such displays? I can imagine some acts being seen in a positive light, but drug taking seems like an odd choice for a young bloke trying to impress girls.

    1. If you are *so healthy* that you can afford to ingest and metabolise poisons, survive crazy risks, and so on, you'll probably be healthy enough to provide her with successful offspring and be able to provide for those offspring. Teenaged risk displays are the human equivalent of the peacock's tail: something that's potentially harmful, but ensures the separating equilibrium where only the most healthy / strong / fit can make the display.

    2. Yep, I get the theory, I'm just not so sure that it works in practice. Maybe I credit young women with more intellect than they deserve, I guess it is hard to deny evolutionary impulses even if they no longer necessarily apply.

  2. Youthful risk and status seeking would result in the "big swinging dicks of Wall St".. wouldn't it?


  3. yes Eric we are driving hard and we drink and if you don't look,
    then we smoke up and we laugh about the professor, and drive on,
    our eyes are watching the road ahead, and it is a different road,
    not Government intervention , a slide by here , a four wheel drift, and we are laughing, we are laughing, and only yesterday we were crying because we had no freedom, we can smoke down there, and we can do what we likes, even read about them monkey Darwin flower things you say

  4. I very nearly stopped reading when I hit "Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness " - seeing as there is no such thing - and I sort of wish I did.

    Even with it's massive shortcomings, I really can't understand the libertarian fascination with evo. psych. Even if it worked, you can't get from is to ought, and lax standards of the field mean you can pick one of a near-infinite set of narratives to explain any piece of data. So what do you get by speculating about the origin of a certain behaviour that you couldn't learn from just studying modern behaviour?

  5. I'm definitely not trying to turn is into ought. But if the ev bio stuff is right, it puts constraints on the practicability of different kinds of policy.

    How do we explain things like cross-cultural agreement on standards of art and beauty without an ev bio turn? Dutton's Art Instinct is compelling.

    Rubin's book pre-dates Caplan's work on voter preferences and, I think, predicts Caplan's findings. In the EEA, we had to fear out-groups. Now, we have natalistic biases in voter preferences. In the EEA, there was effectively no economic growth; now, we have people massively underestimating just how different our standard of living is relative to a few generations back. In the EEA, the division of labour was very limited and small group dynamics pushed to tight inequality aversion; now, we have anti-market bias and scepticism about profits.

    1. Very briefly,

      Obiously some "human unversals" are best explained as being the result of our shared common ancestry. There's still a long way to go from 'shared' to 'adaptation' (a point Dutton in particular doesn't really grasp, IMO), but, even so, it's certainly true that some human behaviours arise from a mismatch between our genes and our environment.

      But evolutionary psychology doesn't seem to have much to do with evolutionary biology. All this talk of this EEA to which we are meant to be perfectly but rigidly and adapted doesn't really add up, it seemingly ignores recent evolution or plasticity in our traits or even biological plausibility of the traits they talk about.

      And, as I say, even if it were true what would you get. The amazing realisation that people form ingroups and outgroups? Why don't we just study people, and leave off the grand evolutionary narratives?

    2. If Dutton has errors, I likely share them; we had a fair few chats about ev bio at the Staff Club.

      My take, FWIW:

      We have a weak predisposition towards certain sets of beliefs. I think it's most consistent with a story that comes out of EEA. The weak predisposition is overcome in a lot of high consequence environments: we overcome our fear of outsiders whenever we meet new people and make friends; we recognize mutual gains from trade in lots of environments. But the weak predispositions come out in low consequence environments like the ballot box where there aren't direct personal costs for getting things wrong.

      I suppose you don't need EEA for that story. But I'm not sure what else generates that kind of consistent pattern of preferences.