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10 June 2016

Lessons from Underground Airlines

In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

For example, consider the influence of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. What alternative history might have arisen if that great statesman had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, not (as in actual history) in 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War, but much earlier in his presidency?

That alternative scenario provides the backdrop to the speculative novel “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winter. It’s a novel that speculates, masterfully, about the trajectory of an alternative history.

Underground Airlines

Imagine if early martyrdom of Lincoln, before any civil war could start, had precipitated a colossal long-standing compromise in the United States, with northern anti-slavery states warily coexisting with southern pro-slavery states, not just for a few more years, but for long decades – indeed, right up until the present day. Imagine if the “underground railroad” rescue mechanism of safe houses and secret routes to transport fugitive escaped slaves, that existed in actual history from the 17th to the 19th century, persisted in modified, modernised form right up until the twenty first century, now known as “underground airlines” (the words which form the title of Winter’s book). Imagine if the latest features of modern society – such as GPS tracking and ubiquitous mobile computers – coexisted with industrial scale slavery in the “Hard Four” recalcitrant states of the deep south. And, worst of all, imagine an extension, right up till today, of the massive double think (self-deception) in which good people persuade themselves that the whole system is acceptable. Imagine the double think with which these bystanders view fugitive slaves on the run, as fair game to be hunted by trackers from the south acting on behalf of massive slave-holding conglomerates.

Winter’s book features double think writ large. Characters that, to outward appearances, seek to help runaway slaves, are secretly assisting the trackers, and allow themselves to feel comfortable with that double think. They accept the brute facts of slavery, and make peace (of a sort) with their personal accommodation to that worldview.

Personalities from actual history intrude, under the skilful choreography of the writer, into the alternative Underground Airlines history. Shunned by much of the rest of the industrialised world, the alternative America occupies a relative backwater on the global stage. The FDR and LBJ mentioned in quiet moments in the narrative wielded an impact far more local, in Underground Airlines history, than in actual history. A reference to a recent “gulf war” turns out to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

More than clever plotting

Winter’s book deserves praise for its clever plotting. Revelations of character motivations come as surprises, but not as jolts: the reader is gradually made aware of a bigger picture with its own, horrible logic. It adds up to gripping reading.

But more than that: Underground Airlines deserves praise for its astuteness in recognising that there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery. The circumstances that we nowadays find overwhelmingly objectionable – the “Inhuman Bondage” described at length by real-world historian David Brion Davis in his epic account of the rise and fall of new world slavery – could be seen by otherwise admirable men and women as necessary, inevitable parts of a way of life that has many redeeming positive aspects. These apologists were wrapped in a set of perceptions – their “accepting slavery” paradigm – which prevented them from acknowledging the full awfulness of bound servitude. Despite their intelligence, their thinking was constrained. Despite the kindness that lay in their hearts, there were marked limits to their compassion.

Inhuman Bondage

I came across the work of David Brion Davis in the course of researching my own recently published book, The Abolition of Aging. Here’s an extract from near the end of my book:

The analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings.

With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction.

With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

My claim in The Abolition of Aging is that most of us accept a terrible double think. We avidly support research against diseases such as cancer, dementia, and heart failure. We are aware of the destructive nature of all these diseases. But we shy away from research into the main underlying escalator of these diseases – the factor that makes these diseases more likely and (when they occur) more serious. This factor is biological aging – namely, the gradual deterioration of our molecular, cellular, and organic systems. We’re too ready to accept biological aging as a given.

We say it would be good if people could avoid being afflicted by cancer, dementia, or heart failure. We advocate people taking steps to decrease the chances of these diseases – for example, not to spend too much time under the direct sun, unprotected. But we tell ourselves that it’s somehow natural (and therefore somehow admirable) that biological aging accelerates in our bodies. So we acquiesce. We accept a deadly compromise.

The Abolition of Aging seeks to overturn that double think. It argues that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could, with sufficient focus and organisation, be achieved within just one human generation from now. Rejuvenation – the periodic reversal of the accumulation of significant damage at our molecular, cellular, and organic levels – can lead to a rapid decline in deaths from diseases of old age, such as cancer, dementia, heart failure, and lots more. Despite the implications of this change for our economic and social systems, this is an overwhelming good, which we should welcome wholeheartedly.

I’m happy to report that The Abolition of Aging has already featured as the #1 bestseller (in the UK) of the Gerontology section of Amazon.

Gerontology bestsellers UK

Next steps

Let’s return to the question from the start of this blogpost: In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

We can’t all be Abraham Lincoln. But as I review in the final sections of my book, there’s a lot that each one of us can do, to tilt upwards the probability that successful rejuvenation therapies will be widely available by 2040. This includes steps to:

  1. Strengthen communities that are working on at least parts of the rejuveneering project
  2. Improve our personal understanding of aspects of rejuveneering – the science, roadmaps, history, philosophy, theories, personalities, platforms, open questions, and so on – and help to document aspects of that better understanding, by creating or editing knowledgebases or wikis
  3. Become involved with marketing of one sort or another
  4. Undertake original research into any of the unknowns of rejuveneering; this could be part of formal educational courses, or it could be a commercial R&D undertaking; it could also be part of a decentralised activity, in the style of “citizen science”
  5. Provide funding to projects that we judge to be particularly worthwhile.

Our contributions are likely to be more significant when they connect into positive efforts that others are already making. For example, I’m impressed by the activities of the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP), which you can read about here. I’ve just made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign, and I encourage you to consider doing the same.

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29 April 2012

My brief skirmish with Android malware

Filed under: Android, deception, malware, security — David Wood @ 2:19 pm

The smartphone security issue is going to run and run. There’s an escalating arms race, between would-be breakers of security and would-be defenders. The race involves both technology engineering and social engineering.

There is a lot at stake:

  • The numbers of users of smartphones continues to rise
  • The amount of sensitive data carried by a typical user on their smartphone (or accessible via credentials on their smartphone) continues to rise
  • Users increasingly become accustomed to the idea of downloading and installing applications on their mobile devices
  • Larger numbers of people turn their minds to crafting ways to persuade users to install apps against their better interest – apps that surreptitiously siphon off data and/or payments

In that context, I offer the following cautionary tale.

This afternoon, I unexpectedly ran into an example of this security arm race. I was minding my own business, doing what lots of people are doing in the UK these days – checking the weather forecast.

My Samsung Galaxy Note, which runs Android, came with an AccuWeather widget pre-installed on the default homescreen:

Clicking on the widget brings up a larger screen, with more content:

Clicking the ‘More’ button opens a web-browser, positioned to a subpage of m.accuweather.com.  I browsed a few screens of different weather information, and then noticed an inviting message near the bottom of the screen:

  • Turbo Battery Boost – Android System Update

I was curious, and decided to see where that link would lead.  On first glance, it appeared to take me into the Android Marketplace:

The reviews looked positive. Nearly two million downloads, with average rating around 4.5 stars. As someone who finds I need to recharge the battery in my Android midway every day, I could see the attraction of the application.

As I was weighing up what to do next, another alert popped up on the screen:

By this stage, I was fairly sure that something fishy was going on. I felt sure that, if there really was a breakthrough in battery management software for Android, I would have heard about it via other means. But by now I was intrigued, so I decided to play along for a while, to see how the story unfolded.

Clicking ‘Next’ immediately started downloading the app:

which was immediately followed by more advice on what I should do next, including the instruction to configure Android to accept updates from outside the Android Market:

Sure enough, the notifications area now contained a downloaded APK file, temptingly labelled “tap to start”:

A risk-averse person would probably have stopped at that point, fearful of what damage the suspicious-looking APK might wreak on my phone. But I had enough confidence in the Android installation gateway to risk one more click:

That’s a heck of a lot of permissions, but it’s nothing unusual. Many of the other apps I’ve installed recently have requested what seemed like a similar range of permissions. The difference in this case was that I reasoned that I had little trust in the origin of this latest application.

Even though the initial ad had been served up on the website of a reputable company, AccuWeather, and implied some kind of endorsement from AccuWeather for this application, I doubted that any such careful endorsement had taken place. Probably the connection via the AccuWeather webpage and the ads shown in it is via some indirect broker.

Anyway, I typed “Android BatteryUpgrade” into a Google search bar, and quickly found various horror stories.

For example, from a PCWorld article by Tom Spring, “Sleazy Ads on Android Devices Push Bogus ‘Battery Upgrade’ Warnings“:

Sketchy ads promote battery-saver apps for Android, but security experts say the programs are really designed to steal your data–or your money

Scareware has gone mobile: Users of Android devices are starting to see sleazy ads warning that they need to upgrade their device’s battery. The supposed battery-saver apps that those ads prod you to download, however, could endanger your privacy or siphon money from your wallet–and generally they’ll do nothing to improve your gadget’s battery life…

“These ads cross a line,” says Andrew Brandt, director of threat research for Solera Networks. It’s one thing to market a worthless battery app, he says, but another to scare or trick people into installing a program they don’t need.

The ads are similar to scareware marketing tactics that have appeared on PCs: Such ads pop up on desktops or laptops, warning that your computer is infected and advising you to download a program to fix the problem. In many cases those rogue system utilities and antivirus products are merely disguises for software that spies on users.

Why use battery ads as a ploy? They tap into a common anxiety, Brandt says. Phone users aren’t yet concerned about viruses on their phones, but they are worried about their battery being sucked dry.

Brandt says that one Android battery app, called both Battery Doctor and Battery Upgrade, is particularly problematic: Not only does it not upgrade a battery or extend a charge, but when it’s installed and unlocked, it harvests the phone’s address book, the phone number, the user’s name and email address, and the phone’s unique identifying IMEI number. With a phone user’s name, IMEI, and wireless account information, an attacker could clone the phone and intercept calls and SMS messages, or siphon money from a user by initiating premium calls and SMS services. Once the battery app is installed the program sends the phone ads that appear in the drop down status bar of the phone at all times – whether the app is running or not. Lastly it periodically transmits changes to the user’s private information and phone-hardware details to its servers…

Now on the one hand, Android deserves praise for pointing out to the user (me, in this case) that the application was requesting lots of powerful capabilities. On the other hand, it’s likely that at least some users would just think, “click, click, yes I really do want to install this, click, click”, having been desensitised to the issue by having installed lots of other apps in seemingly similar ways in the past.

Buyer beware. Especially if the cost is zero – and if the origin of the application cannot be trusted.

Footnote: Now that I’m paying more attention, I can see lots of other “sleazy” (yes, that’s probably the right word) advertisements on AccuWeather’s mobile webpages.

19 September 2010

Our own entrenched enemies of reason

Filed under: books, deception, evolution, intelligence, irrationality, psychology — David Wood @ 3:39 pm

I’m a pretty normal, observant guy.  If there was something as large as an elephant in that room, then I would have seen it – sure as eggs are eggs.  I don’t miss something as large as that.  So someone who says, afterwards, that there was an elephant there, must have some kind of screw loose, or some kind of twisted ulterior motivation.  Gosh, what kind of person are they?

Here’s another version of the same, faulty, line of reasoning:

I’m a pretty good police detective.  Over the years, I’ve developed the knack of knowing when people are telling the truth.  That’s what my experience has taught me.  I know when a confession is for real.  I don’t get things like that wrong.  So someone who says, afterwards, that the confession was forced, or that the criminal should get off on a technicality, must have some kind of screw loose, or some kind of twisted ulterior motivation.  Gosh, what kind of person are they?

And another:

I’m basically a moral person.  I don’t knowingly cause serious harm to my fellow human beings.  I don’t get things as badly wrong as that.  I’m not that kind of person.  So if undeniable evidence subsequently emerges that I really did seriously harm a group of people, well, these people must have deserved it.  They were part of a bad crowd.  I was actually doing society a favour.  Gosh, don’t you know, I’m one of the good guys.

Finally, consider this one:

I’m basically a savvy, intelligent person.  I don’t make major errors in reasoning.  If I take the time to investigate a religion and believe in it, I must be right.  All that investment of time and belief can’t have been wrong.  Perish the thought.  If that religion makes a prophecy – such as the end of the world on a certain date – then I must be right to believe it.  If the world subsequently appears not to have ended on that date, then it must have been our faith, and our actions, that saved the world after all.  Or maybe the world ended in an invisible, but more important way.  The kingdom of heaven has been established within. Either way, how right we were!

It can sometimes be fun to observe the self-delusions of the over-confident.  Psychologists talk about “cognitive dissonance”, when someone’s deeply held beliefs appear to be contradicted by straightforward evidence.  That person is forced to hold two incompatible viewpoints in mind at the same time: I deeply believe X, but I seem to observe not-X.  Most people are troubled by this kind of dissonance.  It’s psychologically uncomfortable.  And because it can be hard for them to give up their underlying self-belief that “If I deeply believe X, I must have good reasons to do so”, it can lead them into outlandish hoops and illogical jumps to deny the straightforward evidence.  For them, rather than “seeing is believing”, the saying becomes inverted: “believing is seeing”.

As I said, it can be fun to see the daft things people have done, to resolve their cognitive dissonance in favour of maintaining their own belief in their own essential soundness, morality, judgement, and/or reasoning.  It can be especial fun to observe the mental gymnastics of people with fundamentalist religious and/or political faith, who refuse to accept plain facts that contradict their certainty.  The same goes for believers in alien abduction, for fan boys of particular mobile operating systems, and for lots more besides.

But this can also be a deadly serious topic:

  • It can result in wrongful imprisonments, with the prosecutors unwilling to face up to the idea that their over-confidence was misplaced.  As a result, people spend many years of their life unjustly incarcerated.
  • It can result in families being shattered under the pressures of false “repressed memories” of childhood abuse, seemingly “recovered” by hypnotists and subsequently passionately believed by the apparent victims.
  • It can split up previously happy couples, who end up being besotted, not with each other, but with dreadful ideas about each other (even though “there’s always two sides to a story”).
  • Perhaps worst of all, it can result in generations-long feuds and wars – such as the disastrous entrenched enmity of the Middle East – with each side staunchly holding onto the view “we’re the good guys, and anything we did to these other guys was justified”.

Above, I’ve retold some of the thoughts that occurred to me as I recently listened to the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts”, by veteran social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  (See here for this book’s website.)  At first, I found the book to be a very pleasant intellectual voyage.  It described, time and again, experimental research that should undermine anyone’s over-confidence about their abilities to observe, remember, and reason.  (I’ll come back to that research in a moment).  It reviewed real-life examples of cognitive dissonance – both personal examples and well-known historical examples.  So far, so good.  But later chapters made me more and more serious – and, frankly, more and more angry – as they explored horrific examples of miscarriages of justice (the miscarriage being subsequently demonstrated by the likes of DNA evidence), family breakups, and escalating conflicts and internecine violence.  All of this stemmed from faulty reasoning, brought on by self-justification (I’m not the kind of person who could make that kind of mistake) and by over-confidence in our own thinking skills.

Some of the same ground is covered in another recent book, “The invisible gorilla – and other ways our intuition deceives us”, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  (See here for the website accompanying this book.)  The gorilla in the title refers to the celebrated experiment where viewers are asked to concentrate on one set of activity – counting the number of passes made by a group of basketball players – and often totally fail to notice someone in a gorilla suit wandering through the crowd of players.  Gorilla?  What gorilla?  Don’t be stupid!  If there had been a gorilla there, I would have seen it, sure as eggs are eggs.

Chapter by chapter, “The invisible gorilla” reviews evidence that we tend to be over-confident in our own abilities to observe, remember, and reason.  The chapters cover:

  • Our bias to think we would surely observe anything large and important that happened
  • Our bias to think our memories are reliable
  • Our bias to think that people who express themselves confidently are more likely to be trustworthy
  • Our bias to think that we would give equal weight to evidence that contradicts our beliefs, as to evidence that supports our beliefs (the reality is that we search high and low for confirming evidence, and quickly jump to reasons to justify ignoring disconfirming evidence)
  • Our bias to think that correlation implies causation: that if event A is often followed by event B, then A will be the cause of B
  • Our bias to think there are quick fixes that will allow significant improvements in our thinking power – such as playing classical music to babies (an effect that has been systematically discredited)
  • Our bias to think we can do many things simultaneously (“multi-task”) without any individual task being affected detrimentally.

These biases probably all were useful to Homo sapiens at an early phase of our evolutionary history.  But in the complex society of the present day, these biases do us more harm than good.

Added together, the two books provide sobering material about our cognitive biases, and about the damage that all too often follows from us being unaware of these biases.

“Mistakes were made (but not by me)” adds the further insight that we tend to descend gradually into a state of gross over-confidence.  The book frequently refers to the metaphor of a pyramid.  Before we make a strong commitment, we are often open-minded.  We could go in several different directions.  But once we start down any of the faces in the pyramid, it becomes harder and harder to retract – and we move further away from people who, initially, were in the very same undecided state as us.  The more we follow a course of action, the greater our commitment to defend all the time and energy we’ve committed down that path.  I can’t have taken a wrong decision, because if I had, I would have wasted all that time and energy, and that’s not the kind of person I am. So they invest even more time and energy, walking yet further down that pyramid of over-confidence, in order to maintain their own self-image.

At root, what’s going wrong here is what psychologists call self-justification.  Once upon a time, the word pride would have been used.  We can’t bear to realise that our own self-image is at fault, so we continue to take actions – often harmful actions – in support of our self-image.

The final chapters of both books offer hope.  They give examples of people who are able to break out of this spiral of self-justification.  It isn’t easy.

An important conclusion is that we should put greater focus on educating people about cognitive biases.  Knowing about a cognitive bias doesn’t make us immune to it, but it does help – especially when we are still only a few rungs down the face of the pyramid.  As stated in the conclusion of “The invisible gorilla”:

One of our messages in this book is indeed negative: Be wary of your intuitions, especially intuitions about how your own mind works.  Our mental systems for rapid cognition excel at solving the problems they evolved to solve, but our cultures, societies, and technologies today are much more complex than those of our ancestors.  In many cases, intuition is poorly adapted to solving problems in the modern world.  Think twice before you decide to trust intuition over rational analysis, especially in important matters, and watch out for people who tell you intuition can be a panacea for decision-making ills…

But we also have an affirmative message to leave you with.  You can make better decisions, and maybe even get a better life, if you do your best to look for the invisible gorillas in the world around you…  There may be important things right in front of you that you aren’t noticing due to the illusion of attention.  Now that you know about this illusion, you’ll be less apt to assume you’re seeing everything there is to see.  You may think you remember some things much better than you really do, because of the illusion of memory.  Now that you understand this illusion, your trust your own memories, and that of others, a bit less, and you’ll try to corroborate your memory in important situations.  You’ll recognise that the confidence people express often reflects their personalities rather than their knowledge, memory, or abilities…  You’ll be skeptical of claims that simple tricks can unleash the untapped potential in your mind, but you’ll be aware than you can develop phenomenal levels of expertise if you study and practice the right way.

Similarly, we should also take more care to widely explain the benefits of the scientific approach, which searches for disconfirming evidence as must as it searches for confirming evidence.

That’s the pro-reason approach to encouraging better reasoning.  But reason, by itself, often isn’t enough.  If we are going to face up to the fact that we’ve made grave errors of judgement, which have caused pain, injustice, and sometimes even death and destruction, we frequently need powerful emotional support.  To enable us to admit to ourselves that we’ve made major mistakes, it greatly helps if we can find another image of ourselves, which sees us as making better contributions in the future.  That’s the pro-hope approach to encouraging better reasoning.  The two books have examples of each approach.  Both books are well worth reading.  At the very least, you may get some new insight as to why discussions on Internet forums often descend into people seemingly talking past each other, or why formerly friendly colleagues can get stuck into an unhelpful rut of deeply disliking each other.

29 August 2010

Understanding humans better by understanding evolution better

Filed under: collaboration, deception, evolution, RSA, UKH+ — David Wood @ 5:54 am

Many aspects of human life that at first seem weird and hard to explain can make a lot more sense once you see them from the viewpoint of evolution.

It was Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene” which first led me to that conclusion, whilst I was still at university.  After “The Selfish Gene”, I read “Sociobiology: the new synthesis“, by E.O. Wilson, which gave other examples.  I realised it was no longer necessary to refer to concepts such as “innate wickedness” or “original sin” to explain why people often did daft things.  Instead, people do things because (in part) of underlying behavioural patterns which tended to make their ancestors more likely to leave successful offspring.

In short, you can deepen your understanding of  humans if you understand evolution.  On the whole, attempts to get humans to change their behaviour will be more likely to succeed if they are grounded in an understanding of the real factors that led humans to tend to behave as they do.

What’s more, you can understand humans better if you understand evolution better.

In a moment, I’ll come to some interesting new ideas about the role played by technology in evolution.  But first, I’ll mention two other ways in which an improved understanding of evolution sheds richer light on the human condition.

1. Evolution often results in sub-optimal solutions

In places where an intelligent (e.g. human) designer would “go back to the drawing board” and introduce a new design template, biological evolution has been constrained to keep working with the materials that are already in play.  Biological evolution lacks true foresight, and cannot do what human designers would call “re-factoring an existing design”.

I’ve written on this subject before, in my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature” of the book by Gary Marcus, “Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind” – so I won’t say much more about that particular topic right now.  But I can’t resist including a link to a fascinating video in which Richard Dawkins demonstrates the absurdly non-optimal route taken by the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe.  As Dawkins says in the video, this nerve “is a beautiful example of historical legacy, as opposed to design”.  If you haven’t seen this clip before, it’s well worth watching, and thinking about the implications.

2. Evolution can operate at multiple levels

For a full understanding of evolution, you have to realise it can operate at multiple levels:

  • At the level of individual genes
  • At the level of individual organisms
  • At the level of groups of cooperating organisms.

At each level, there are behaviours which exist because they made it more likely for an entity (at that level) to leave descendants.  For example, groups of animals tend to survive as a group, if individuals within that group are willing, from time to time, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group.

The notion of group selection is, however, controversial among evolutionary theorists.  Part of the merit of books such as The Selfish Gene was that it showed how altruistic behaviour could be explained, in at least some circumstances, by looking at the point of survival of individual genes.  If individual A sacrifices himself for the sake of individuals B and C within the same group, it may well be that B and C carry many of the same genes as individual A.  This analysis seems to deal with the major theoretical obstacle to the idea of group selection, which is as follows:

  • If individuals A1, A2, A3,… all have an instinct to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their wider group, it may well mean, other things being equal, that this group is initially more resilient than competing groups
  • However, an individual A4 who is individually selfish, within that group, will get the benefit of the success of the group, and the benefit of individual survival
  • So, over time, the group will tend to contain more individuals like the “free-rider” A4, and fewer like A1, A2, and A3
  • Therefore the group will degenerate into selfish behaviour … and this shows that the notion of “group selection” is flawed.

Nevertheless, I’ve been persuaded by writer David Sloan Wilson that the notion of group selection can still apply.  He gives an easy-to-read account of his ideas in his wide-ranging book “Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives“.  In summary:

  • Group selection can apply, provided the group also has mechanisms to reduce free-riding behaviour by individuals
  • For example, people in the group might have strong instincts to condemn and punish people who try to take excess advantage of the generosity of others
  • So long as these mechanisms keep the prevalence of free-riding below a certain threshold, a group can reach a stable situation in which the altruism of the majority continues to benefit the group as a whole.

(To be clear: this kind of altruism generally looks favourably only at others within the same group.  People who are outside your group won’t benefit from it.  An injunction such as “love your neighbour as yourself” applied in practice only to people within your group – not to people outside it.)

To my mind, this makes sense of a great deal of the mental gymnastics that we can observe: people combine elements of surreptitiously trying to benefit themselves (and their own families) whilst seeking to appearing to the group as a whole as being “good citizens”.  In turn, we are adept at seeing duplicity and hypocrisy in others.  There’s been a long “arms race” in which brains have been selected that are better at playing both sides of this game.

Incidentally, for another book that takes an entertaining and audacious “big picture” view of evolution and group selection, see the barn-storming “The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History” by Howard Bloom.

3. The role of technology in evolution

At first sight, technology has little to do with evolution.  Evolution occurred in bygone times, whilst technology is a modern development – right?

Not true. First, evolution is very much a present-day phenomenon (as well as something that has been at work throughout the whole history of life).  Diseases evolve rapidly, under pressures of different regimes of anti-bacterial cocktails.  And there is evidence that biological evolution still occurs for humans.  A 2009 article in Time magazine was entitled “Darwin Lives! Modern Humans Are Still Evolving“.  Here’s a brief extract:

One study, published in PNAS in 2007 and led by John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that some 1,800 human gene variations had become widespread in recent generations because of their modern-day evolutionary benefits. Among those genetic changes, discovered by examining more than 3 million DNA variants in 269 individuals: mutations that allow people to digest milk or resist malaria and others that govern brain development.

Second, technology is itself an ancient phenomenon – including creative use of sticks and stones.  Benefits of very early human use of sticks and stones included fire, weapons, and clothing.  What’s more, the advantages of use of tools allowed a strange side-effect in human genetic evolution: as we became technologically stronger, we also became biologically weaker.  The Time magazine article mentioned above goes on to state the following:

According to anthropologist Peter McAllister, author of “Manthropology: the Science of Inadequate Modern Man“, the contemporary male has evolved, at least physically, into “the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet.” Thanks to genetic differences, an average Neanderthal woman, McAllister notes, could have whupped Arnold Schwarzenegger at his muscular peak in an arm-wrestling match. And prehistoric Australian Aborigines, who typically built up great strength in their joints and muscles through childhood and adolescence, could have easily beat Usain Bolt in a 100-m dash.

Timothy Taylor, Reader in Archaeology at the University of Bradford and editor-in-chief of the Journal of World Prehistory, tackles this same topic in his recent book “The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution“.

Amazon.com describes this book as following:

A breakthrough theory that tools and technology are the real drivers of human evolution.

Although humans are one of the great apes, along with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, we are remarkably different from them. Unlike our cousins who subsist on raw food, spend their days and nights outdoors, and wear a thick coat of hair, humans are entirely dependent on artificial things, such as clothing, shelter, and the use of tools, and would die in nature without them. Yet, despite our status as the weakest ape, we are the masters of this planet. Given these inherent deficits, how did humans come out on top?

In this fascinating new account of our origins, leading archaeologist Timothy Taylor proposes a new way of thinking about human evolution through our relationship with objects. Drawing on the latest fossil evidence, Taylor argues that at each step of our species’ development, humans made choices that caused us to assume greater control of our evolution. Our appropriation of objects allowed us to walk upright, lose our body hair, and grow significantly larger brains. As we push the frontiers of scientific technology, creating prosthetics, intelligent implants, and artificially modified genes, we continue a process that started in the prehistoric past, when we first began to extend our powers through objects.

Weaving together lively discussions of major discoveries of human skeletons and artifacts with a reexamination of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Taylor takes us on an exciting and challenging journey that begins to answer the fundamental question about our existence: what makes humans unique, and what does that mean for our future?

In an interview in the New Scientist, Timothy Taylor gives more details of his ideas:

Upright female hominins walking the savannah had a real problem: their babies couldn’t cling to them the way a chimp baby could cling to its mother. Carrying an infant would have been the highest drain on energy for a hominin female – higher than lactation. So what did they do? I believe they figured out how to carry their newborns using a loop of animal tissue. Evidence of the slings hasn’t survived, but in the same way that we infer lungs and organs from the bones of fossils that survive, it is from the stone tools that we can infer the bits that don’t last: things made from sinew, wood, leather and grasses…

Once you have slings to carry babies, you have broken a glass ceiling – it doesn’t matter whether the infant is helpless for a day, a month or a year. You can have ever more helpless young and that, as far as I can see, is how encephalisation took place in the genus Homo. We used technology to turn ourselves into kangaroos. Our children are born more and more underdeveloped because they can continue to develop outside the womb – they become an extra-uterine fetus in the sling. This means their heads can continue to grow after birth, solving the smart biped paradox. In that sense technology comes before the ascent to Homo. Our brain expansion only really took off half a million years after the first stone tools. And they continued to develop within an increasingly technological environment…

I’ve ordered Taylor’s book from Amazon and I expect it to be waiting for me at my home in the UK once I return from my current trip in Asia.  I’m also looking forward to hosting a discussion meeting on Saturday 11th Sept under the auspices of Humanity+ UK in London, where Timothy Taylor himself will be the main speaker. People on Facebook can register their interest in this meeting by RSVPing here.  There’s no charge to attend.

Another option to see Timothy Taylor lecture in person – for those able to spare time in the middle of the day on a Thursday (9th Sept) – will be at the RSA.  I expect there will be good discussion at both events, but the session at H+UK is longer (two hours, as opposed to just one at the RSA), and I expect more questions there about matters such as the likely role of technology radically re-shaping the future development of humans.

Footnote: of course, the fact that evolution guided our ancestors to behave in certain ways is no reason for us to want to continue to behave in these ways.  But understanding the former is, in my view, very useful background knowledge for being to devise practical measures to change ourselves.

26 April 2009

Immersed in deception

Filed under: deception, intelligence, spam — David Wood @ 2:43 pm

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received a lot of flattery and what looks like friendly advice.

Here’s an example:

Ah! This is the sort of thing I have been looking for. I’m doing some research for an article. You should add buttons to the bottom of your posts to digg, stumble, etc your content. I think this is great and want to share it, but as it stands, I’m a lazy lazy person. Just kidding!

And here’s another:

I’ve just found your blog and I really like it. This is the first time I’ve written a comment. I’m not sure what to say, but please keep up the good work!

I found these compliments while checking the comments posted in reply to my own postings – either here, on my personal blog, or on the Symbian corporate blog.

At first, I felt pleased. Then I realised I was being deceived. These comments were being placed on my blogs, simply to tempt unwary readers to click on the links in them. These links lead to sites promoting bargain basement laptops, products made from the Acai “super berry”, and numerous other wild and wacky stuff (much of it not suitable for work). Now that I’m aware of these “link bait” comments, I notice them all over the web. They’re presumably being generated automatically.

The Symbian corporate blog is hosted by WordPress and relies on a service from Akismet to sort incoming comments into “pending” and “spam”. On the whole, it does a remarkably good job. But sometimes (not too surprisingly) it gets things wrong:

  • There are false positives – genuine messages that are classified onto the spam list
  • There are false negatives – deceptive messages that are classified onto the pending queue.

The task of sorting comments becomes even harder when “linkbacks” are taken into account. By default, WordPress lists “pingbacks” and “trackbacks”, when other blogs reference one of your articles. I haven’t yet made up my mind how useful this is. But I do know that it’s another avenue for deceptive postings to get their links onto your webpage. Some of these other postings re-use text from the original posting, chopping it up to give the appearance that a human being is providing intelligent analysis of your ideas. But again, it’s now my view that these postings are being generated algorithmically, just in order to receive and harvest incoming clicks.

Companies like Akismet are clearly involved in some kind of escalating arms race. As they learn the tricks employed by one generation of spam-creating program, another generation finds ways to mask the intent more skilfully.

I guess it’s like the way human intelligence is often thought to have emerged. According to widespread opinion, early humans existing in large groups found it beneficial to be able to:

  • Deceive each other about their true intentions;
  • Pretend to be supportive of the ends of the group, but to free-ride on the support of others when they could get away with it;
  • See through the deceptive intentions of others;
  • To keep track of what person A thinks about what person B thinks about person C…

This kind of evolutionary arms race was, according to this theory, one of the causes of mushrooming human brain power.

For example, to quote from Mario Heilmann’s online paper Social evolution and social influence: selfishness, deception, self-deception:

This paper endeavors to point out that the selfish interests of individuals caused deception and countermeasures against deception to become driving forces behind social influence strategies. The expensive and wasteful nature of negotiation and impression management is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this arms race between deception and detection.

Natural selection created genetic dispositions to deceive, and to constantly and unconsciously suspect deception attempts. In a competitive, selfish, and war-prone world, these techniques, proven in billions of years in evolution, still are optimal. Therefore they are reinforced by cultural selection and learning. Conscious awareness of deception and countermeasures is not required, often even counterproductive. This is so because conscious deception is easier to detect and carries harsher sanctions.

Humans not only deceive, but also deceive themselves and others about the fact that they deceive, into believing that they do not deceive. This double deception makes the system so watertight, that it tends to evade detection even by psychologists.

Deception may be widespread in human society, but the associated increase in brainpower has had lots of more positive side-effects. I wonder if the same will result from the rapid arms race in electronic deception and counter-deception mechanisms – and whether this will be one means for genuine electronic intelligence to emerge.

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