“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Crash Course in Multilevel Selection Theory part 2: Steven Pinker Falls Prey to the Averaging Fallacy Sober and Wilson Tried to Warn Him about

 Read Part 1               If you were a woman applying to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1973, you would have had a 35 percent chance of being accepted. If you were a man, your chances would have been significantly better. Forty-four percent of male applicants got accepted that year. Apparently, at this early stage of the feminist movement, even a school as notoriously progressive as Berkeley still discriminated against women. But not surprisingly, when confronted with these numbers, the women of the school were ready to take action to right the supposed injustice. After a lawsuit was filed charging admissions offices with bias, however, a department-by-department examination was conducted which produced a curious finding: not a single department admitted a significantly higher percentage of men than women. In fact, there was a small but significant trend in the opposite direction—a bias against men.
What this means is that somehow the aggregate probability of being accepted into grad school was dramatically different from the probabilities worked out through disaggregating the numbers with regard to important groupings, in this case the academic departments housing the programs assessing the applications. This discrepancy called for an explanation, and statisticians had had one on hand since 1951.
This paradoxical finding fell into place when it was noticed that women tended to apply to departments with low acceptance rates. To see how this can happen, imagine that 90 women and 10 men apply to a department with a 30 percent acceptance rate. This department does not discriminate and therefore accepts 27 women and 3 men. Another department, with a 60 percent acceptance rate, receives applications from 10 women and 90 men. This department doesn’t discriminate either and therefore accepts 6 women and 54 men. Considering both departments together, 100 men and 100 women applied, but only 33 women were accepted, compared with 57 men. A bias exists in the two departments combined, despite the fact that it does not exist in any single department, because the departments contribute unequally to the total number of applicants who are accepted. (25)
This is how the counterintuitive statistical phenomenon known as Simpson’s Paradox is explained by philosopher Elliott Sober and biologist David Sloan Wilson in their 1998 book Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, in which they argue that the same principle can apply to the relative proliferation of organisms in groups with varying percentages of altruists and selfish actors. In this case, the benefit to the group of having more altruists is analogous to the higher acceptance rates for grad school departments which tend to receive a disproportionate number of applications from men. And the counterintuitive outcome is that, in an aggregated population of groups, altruists have an advantage over selfish actors—even though within each of those groups selfish actors outcompete altruists.  
            Sober and Wilson caution that this assessment is based on certain critical assumptions about the population in question. “This model,” they write, “requires groups to be isolated as far as the benefits of altruism are concerned but nevertheless to compete in the formation of new groups” (29). It also requires that altruists and nonaltruists somehow “become concentrated in different groups” (26) so the benefits of altruism can accrue to one while the costs of selfishness accrue to the other. One type of group that follows this pattern is a family, whose members resemble each other in terms of their traits—including a propensity for altruism—because they share many of the same genes. In humans, families tend to be based on pair bonds established for the purpose of siring and raising children, forming a unit that remains stable long enough for the benefits of altruism to be of immense importance. As the children reach adulthood, though, they disperse to form their own family groups. Therefore, assuming families live in a population with other families, group selection ought to lead to the evolution of altruism.
(pg 24) Darker area represents altruists and shrinks in
both groups--but notice the right circle gets bigger.
            Sober and Wilson wrote Unto Others to challenge the prevailing approach to solving mysteries in evolutionary biology, which was to focus strictly on competition between genes. In place of this exclusive attention on gene selection, they advocate a pluralistic approach that takes into account the possibility of selection occurring at multiple levels, from genes to individuals to groups. This is where the term multilevel selection comes from. In certain instances, focusing on one level instead of another amounts to a mere shift in perspective. Looking at families as groups, for instance, leads to many of the same conclusions as looking at them in terms of vehicles for carrying genes. William D. Hamilton, whose thinking inspired both Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, long ago explained altruism within families by setting forth the theory of kin selection, which posits that family members will at times behave in ways that benefit each other even at their own expense because the genes underlying the behavior don’t make any distinction between the bodies which happen to be carrying copies of themselves. Sober and Wilson write,
As we have seen, however, kin selection is a special case of a more general theory—a point that Hamilton was among the first to appreciate. In his own words, “it obviously makes no difference if altruists settle with altruists because they are related… or because they recognize fellow altruists as such, or settle together because of some pleiotropic effect of the gene on habitat preference.” We therefore need to evaluate human social behavior in terms of the general theory of multilevel selection, not the special case of kin selection. When we do this, we may discover that humans, bees, and corals are all group-selected, but for different reasons. (134)
A general proclivity toward altruism based on section at the level of family groups may look somewhat different from kin-selected altruism targeted solely at those who are recognized as close relatives. For obvious reasons, the possibility of group selection becomes even more important when it comes to explaining the evolution of altruism among unrelated individuals.
Elliott Sober
            We have to bear in mind that Dawkins’s selfish genes are only selfish with regard to concerning themselves with nothing but ensuring their own continued existence—by calling them selfish he never meant to imply they must always be associated with selfishness as a trait of the bodies they provide the blueprints for. Selfish genes, in other words, can sometimes code for altruistic behavior, as in the case of kin selection. So the question of what level selection operates on is much more complicated than it would be if the gene-focused approach predicted selfishness while the multilevel approach predicted altruism. But many strict gene selection advocates argue that because selfish gene theory can account for altruism in myriad ways there’s simply no need to resort to group selection. Evolution is, after all, changes over time in gene frequencies. So why should we look to higher levels?
David Sloan Wilson
            Sober and Wilson demonstrate that if you focus on individuals in their simple model of predominantly altruistic groups competing against predominantly selfish groups you will conclude that altruism is adaptive because it happens to be the trait that ends up proliferating. You may add the qualifier that it’s adaptive in the specified context, but the upshot is that from the perspective of individual selection altruism outcompetes selfishness. The problem is that this is the same reasoning underlying the misguided accusations against Berkley; for any individual in that aggregate population, it was advantageous to be a male—but there was never any individual selection pressure against females. Sober and Wilson write,
The averaging approach makes “individual selection” a synonym for “natural selection.” The existence of more than one group and fitness differences between the groups have been folded into the definition of individual selection, defining group selection out of existence. Group selection is no longer a process that can occur in theory, so its existence in nature is settled a priori. Group selection simply has no place in this semantic framework. (32)
Thus, a strict focus on individuals, though it may appear to fully account for the outcome, necessarily obscures a crucial process that went into producing it. The same logic might be applicable to any analysis based on gene-level accounting. Sober and Wilson write that
if the point is to understand the processes at work, the resultant is not enough. Simpson’s paradox shows how confusing it can be to focus only on net outcomes without keeping track of the component causal factors. This confusion is carried into evolutionary biology when the separate effects of selection within and between groups are expressed in terms of a single quantity. (33)
They go on to label this approach “the averaging fallacy.” Acknowledging that nobody explicitly insists that group selection is somehow impossible by definition, they still find countless instances in which it is defined out of existence in practice. They write,
Even though the averaging fallacy is not endorsed in its general form, it frequently occurs in specific cases. In fact, we will make the bold claim that the controversy over group selection and altruism in biology can be largely resolved simply by avoiding the averaging fallacy. (34)
            Unfortunately, this warning about the averaging fallacy continues to go unheeded by advocates of strict gene selection theories. Even intellectual heavyweights of the caliber of Steven Pinker fall into the trap. In a severely disappointing essay published just last month at Edge.org called “The False Allure of Group Selection,” Pinker writes
If a person has innate traits that encourage him to contribute to the group’s welfare and as a result contribute to his own welfare, group selection is unnecessary; individual selection in the context of group living is adequate. Individual human traits evolved in an environment that includes other humans, just as they evolved in environments that include day-night cycles, predators, pathogens, and fruiting trees.
Steven Pinker
Multilevel selectionists wouldn’t disagree with this point; they would readily explain traits that benefit everyone in the group at no cost to the individuals possessing them as arising through individual selection. But Pinker here shows his readiness to fold the process of group competition into some generic “context.” The important element of the debate, of course, centers on traits that benefit the group at the expense of the individual. Pinker writes,
Except in the theoretically possible but empirically unlikely circumstance in which groups bud off new groups faster than their members have babies, any genetic tendency to risk life and limb that results in a net decrease in individual inclusive fitness will be relentlessly selected against. A new mutation with this effect would not come to predominate in the population, and even if it did, it would be driven out by any immigrant or mutant that favored itself at the expense of the group.
But, as Sober and Wilson demonstrate, those self-sacrificial traits wouldn’t necessarily be selected against in the population. In fact, self-sacrifice would be selected for if that population is an aggregation of competing groups. Pinker fails to even consider this possibility because he’s determined to stick with the definition of natural selection as occurring at the level of genes.
            Indeed, the centerpiece of Pinker’s argument against group selection in this essay is his definition of natural selection. Channeling Dawkins, he writes that evolution is best understood as competition between “replicators” to continue replicating. The implication is that groups, and even individuals, can’t be the units of selection because they don’t replicate themselves. He writes,
The theory of natural selection applies most readily to genes because they have the right stuff to drive selection, namely making high-fidelity copies of themselves. Granted, it's often convenient to speak about selection at the level of individuals, because it’s the fate of individuals (and their kin) in the world of cause and effect which determines the fate of their genes. Nonetheless, it’s the genes themselves that are replicated over generations and are thus the targets of selection and the ultimate beneficiaries of adaptations.
The underlying assumption is that, because genes rely on individuals as “vehicles” to replicate themselves, individuals can sometimes be used as shorthand for genes when discussing natural selection. Since gene competition within an individual would be to the detriment of all the genes that individual carries and strives to pass on, the genes collaborate to suppress conflicts amongst themselves. The further assumption underlying Pinker’s and Dawkins’s reasoning is that groups make for poor vehicles because suppressing within group conflict would be too difficult. But, as Sober and Wilson write,
This argument does not evaluate group selection on a trait-by-trait basis. In addition, it begs the question of how individuals became such good vehicles of selection in the first place. The mechanisms that currently limit within-individual selection are not a happy coincidence but are themselves adaptions that evolved by natural selection. Genomes that managed to limit internal conflict presumably were more fit than other genomes, so these mechanisms evolve by between-genome selection. Being a good vehicle as Dawkins defines it is not a requirement for individual selection—it’s a product of individual selection. Similarly, groups do not have to be elaborately organized “superorganisms” to qualify as a unit of selection with respect to particular traits. (97)
The idea of a “trait-group” is exemplified by the simple altruistic group versus selfish group model they used to demonstrate the potential confusion arising from Simpson’s paradox. As long as individuals with the altruism trait interact with enough regularity for the benefits to be felt, they can be defined as a group with regard to that trait.
            Pinker makes several other dubious points in his essay, most of them based on the reasoning that group selection isn’t “necessary” to explain this or that trait, only justifying his prejudice in favor of gene selection with reference to the selfish gene definition of evolution. Of course, it may be possible to imagine gene-level explanations to behaviors humans engage in predictably, like punishing cheaters in economic interactions even when doing so means the punisher incurs some cost to him or herself. But Pinker is so caught up with replicators he overlooks the potential of this type of punishment to transform groups into functional vehicles. As Sober and Wilson demonstrate, group competition can lead to the evolution of altruism on its own. But once altruism reaches a certain threshold group selection can become even more powerful because the altruistic group members will, by definition, be better at behaving as a group. And one of the mechanisms we might expect to evolve through an ongoing process of group selection would operate to curtail within group conflict and exploitation. The costly punishment Pinker dismisses as possibly explicable through gene selection is much more likely to havearisen through group selection. Sober and Wilson delight in the irony that, “The entire language of social interactions among individuals in groups has been burrowed to describe genetic interactions within individuals; ‘outlaw’ genes, ‘sheriff’ genes, ‘parliaments’ of genes, and so on” (147).
            Unto Others makes such a powerful case against strict gene-level explanations and for the potentially crucial role of group selection that anyone who undertakes to argue that the appeal of multilevel selection theory is somehow false without even mentioning it risks serious embarrassment. Published fourteen years ago, it still contains a remarkably effective rebuttal to Pinker’s essay:  
In short, the concept of genes as replicators, widely regarded as a decisive argument against group selection, is in fact totally irrelevant to the subject. Selfish gene theory does not invoke any processes that are different from the ones described in multilevel selection theory, but merely looks at the same processes in a different way. Those benighted group selectionists might be right in every detail; group selection could have evolved altruists that sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others, animals that regulate their numbers to avoid overexploiting their resources, and so on. Selfish gene theory calls the genes responsible for these behaviors “selfish” for the simple reason that they evolved and therefore replicated more successfully than other genes. Multilevel selection theory, on the other hand, is devoted to showing how these behaviors evolve. Fitness differences must exist somewhere in the biological hierarchy—between individuals within groups, between groups in the global population, and so on. Selfish gene theory can’t even begin to explore these questions on the basis of the replicator concept alone. The vehicle concept is its way of groping toward the very issues that multilevel selection theory was developed to explain. (88)
Sober and Wilson, in opening the field of evolutionary studies to forces beyond gene competition, went a long way toward vindicating Stephen Jay Gould, who throughout his career held that selfish gene theory was too reductionist—he even incorporated their arguments into his final book. But Sober and Wilson are still working primarily in the abstract realm of evolutionary modeling, although in the second half of Unto Others they cite multiple psychological and anthropological sources. A theorist even more after Gould’s own heart, one who synthesizes both models and evidence from multiple fields, from paleontology to primatology to ethnography, into a hypothetical account of the natural history of human evolution, from the ancestor we share with the great apes to modern nomadic foragers and beyond, is the anthropologist Christopher Boehm, whose work we’ll be exploring in part 3.
Read Part 1 of A Crash Course in Multilevel Selection Theory: The Goundwork Laid by Dawkins and Gould
And Part 3: The People Who Evolved Our Genes for Us: Christopher Boehm on Moral Origins.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Crash Course in Multi-Level Selection Theory: Part 1-The Groundwork Laid by Dawkins and Gould

            Responding to Stephen Jay Gould’s criticisms of his then most infamous book, Richard Dawkins writes in a footnote to the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene, “I find his reasoning wrong but interesting, which, incidentally, he has been kind enough to tell me, is how he usually finds mine” (275). Dawkins’s idea was that evolution is, at its core, competition between genes with success measured in continued existence. Genes are replicators. Evolution is therefore best thought of as the outcome of this competition between replicators to keep on replicating. Gould’s response was that natural selection can’t possibly act on genes because genes are always buried in bodies. Those replicators always come grouped with other replicators and have only indirect effects on the bodies they ultimately serve as blueprints for. Natural selection, as Gould suggests, can’t “see” genes; it can only see, and act on, individuals.

The image of individual genes, plotting the course of their own survival, bears little relationship to developmental genetics as we understand it. Dawkins will need another metaphor: genes caucusing, forming alliances, showing deference for a chance to join a pact, gauging probable environments. But when you amalgamate so many genes and tie them together in hierarchical chains of action mediated by environments, we call the resultant object a body. (91)

Dawkins’ rebuttal, in both later editions of The Selfish Gene and in The Extended Phenotype, is, essentially, Duh—of course genes come grouped together with other genes and only ever evolve in context. But the important point is that individuals never replicate themselves. Bodies don’t create copies of themselves. Genes, on the other hand, do just that. Bodies are therefore best thought of as vehicles for these replicators.
Dawkins

            As a subtle hint of his preeminent critic’s unreason, Dawkins quotes himself in his response to Gould, citing a passage Gould must’ve missed, in which the genes making up an individual organism’s genome are compared to the members of a rowing team. Each contributes to the success or failure of the team, but it’s still the individual members that are important. Dawkins describes how the concept of an “Evolutionarily Stable Strategy,” can be applied to a matter

arising from the analogy of oarsmen in a boat (representing genes in a body) needing a good team spirit. Genes are selected, not as “good” in isolation, but as good at working against the background of the other genes in the gene pool. A good gene must be compatible with and complementary to, the other genes with whom it has to share a long succession of bodies. A gene for plant-grinding teeth is a good gene in the gene pool of a herbivorous species, but a bad gene in the gene pool of a carnivorous species. (84)

Gould, in other words, isn’t telling Dawkins anything he hasn’t already considered. But does that mean Gould’s point is moot? Or does the rowing team analogy actually support his reasoning? In any case, they both agree that the idea of a “good gene” is meaningless without context.

            The selfish gene idea has gone on to become the linchpin of research in many subfields of evolutionary biology, its main appeal being the ease with which it lends itself to mathematical modeling. If you want to know what traits are the most likely to evolve, you create a simulation in which individuals with various traits compete. Run the simulation and the outcome allows you to determine the relative probability of a given trait evolving in the context of individuals with other traits. You can then compare the statistical outcomes derived from the simulation with experimental data on how the actual animals behave. This sort of analysis relies on the assumption that the traits in question are both discrete and can be selected for, and this reasoning usually rest on the further assumption that the traits are, beyond a certain threshold probability, the end-product of chemical processes set in motion by a particular gene or set of genes. In reality, everyone acknowledges that this one-to-one correspondence between gene and trait—or constellation of genes and trait—seldom occurs. All genes can do is make their associated traits more likely to develop in specific environments. But if the sample size is large enough, meaning that the population you’re modeling is large enough, and if the interactions go through enough iterations, the complicating nuances will cancel out in the final statistical averaging.  

            Gould’s longstanding objection to this line of research—as productive as he acknowledged it could be—was that processes, and even events, like large-scale natural catastrophes, that occur at higher levels of analysis can be just as or more important than the shuffling of gene frequencies at the lowest level. It’s hardly irrelevant that Dawkins and most of his fellow ethologists who rely on his theories primarily study insects—relatively simple-bodied species that produce huge populations and have rapid generational turnover. Gould, on the other hand, focused his research on the evolution of snail shells. And he kept his eye throughout his career on the big picture of how evolution worked over vast periods of time. As a paleontologist, he found himself looking at trends in the fossil record that didn’t seem to follow the expected patterns of continual, gradual development within species. In fact, the fossil records of most lineages seem to be characterized by long periods of slow or no change followed by sudden disruptions—a pattern he and Niles Eldredge refer to as punctuated equilibrium. In working out an explanation for this pattern, Eldredge and Gould did Dawkins one better: sure, genes are capable of a sort of immortality, they reasoned, but then so are species. Evolution then isn’t just driven by competition between genes or individuals; something like species selection must also be taking place.

            Dawkins accepted this reasoning up to a point, seeing that it probably even goes some way toward explaining the patterns that often emerge in the fossil record. But whereas Gould believed there was so much randomness at play in large populations that small differences would tend to cancel out, and that “speciation events”—periods when displacement or catastrophe led to smaller group sizes—were necessary for variations to take hold in the population, Dawkins thought it unlikely that variations really do cancel each other out even in large groups. This is because he knows of several examples of “evolutionary arms races,” multigenerational exchanges in which a small change leads to a big advantage, which in turn leads to a ratcheting up of the trait in question as all the individuals in the population are now competing in a changed context. Sexual selection, based on competition for reproductive access to females, is a common cause of arms races. That’s why extreme traits in the form of plumage or body size or antlers are easy to point to. Once you allow for this type of change within populations, you are forced to conclude that gene-level selection is much more powerful and important than species-level selection. As Dawkins explains in The Extended Phenotype,

Accepting Eldredge and Gould’s belief that natural selection is a general theory that can be phrased on many levels, the putting together of a certain quantity of evolutionary change demands a certain minimum number of selective replicator-eliminations. Whether the replicators that are selectively eliminated are genes or species, a simple evolutionary change requires only a few replicator substitutions. A large number of replicator substitutions, however, are needed for the evolution of a complex adaptation. The minimum replacement cycle time when we consider the gene as replicator is one individual generation, from zygote to zygote. It is measured in years or months, or smaller time units. Even in the largest organisms it is measured in only tens of years. When we consider the species as replicator, on the other hand, the replacement cycle time is the interval from speciation event to speciation event, and may be measured in thousands of years, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. In any given period of geological time, the number of selective species extinctions that can have taken place is many orders of magnitude less than the number of selective allele replacements that can have taken place. (106)

This reasoning, however, applies only to features and traits that are under intense selection pressure. So in determining whether a given trait arose through a process of gene selection or species selection you would first have to know certain features about the nature of that trait: how much of an advantage it confers if any, how widely members of the population vary in terms of it, and what types of countervailing forces might cancel out or intensify the selection pressure.

Dawkins on South Park
            The main difference between Dawkins’s and Gould’s approaches to evolutionary questions is that Dawkins prefers to frame answers in terms of the relative success of competing genes while Gould prefers to frame them in terms of historical outcomes. Dawkins would explain a wasp’s behavior by pointing out that behaving that way ensures copies of the wasp’s genes will persist in the population. Gould would explain the shape of some mammalian skull by pointing out how contingent that shape is on the skulls of earlier creatures in the lineage. Dawkins knows history is important. Gould knows gene competition is important. The difference is in the relative weights given to each. Dawkins might challenge Gould, “Gene selection explains self-sacrifice for the sake of close relatives, who carry many of the same genes”—an idea known as kin selection—“what does your historical approach say about that?” Gould might then point to the tiny forelimbs of a tyrannosaurus, or the original emergence of feathers (which were probably sported by some other dinosaur) and challenge Dawkins, “Account for that in terms of gene competition.”

            The area where these different perspectives came into the most direct conflict was sociobiology, which later developed into evolutionary psychology. This is a field in which theorists steeped in selfish gene thinking look at human social behavior and see in it the end product of gene competition. Behaviors are treated as traits, traits are assumed to have a genetic basis, and, since the genes involved exist because they outcompeted other genes producing other traits, their continuing existence suggests that the traits are adaptive, i.e. that they somehow make the continued existence of the associated genes more likely. The task of the evolutionary psychologist is to work out how. This was in fact the approach ethologists had been applying, primarily to insects, for decades. E.O. Wilson, a renowned specialist on ant behavior, was the first to apply it to humans in his book Sociobiology, and in a later book, On Human Nature, which won him the Pulitzer. But the assumption that human behavior is somehow fixed to genes and that it always serves to benefit those genes was anathema to Gould. If ever there were a creature for whom the causal chain from gene to trait or behavior was too long and complex for the standard ethological approaches to yield valid insights, it had to be humans.

Gould on The Simpsons
Gould famously compared evolutionary psychological theories to the “Just-so” stories of Kipling, suggesting they relied on far too many shaky assumptions and made use of far too little evidence. From Gould’s perspective, any observable trait, in humans or any other species, was just as likely to have no effect on fitness at all as it was to be adaptive. For one thing, the trait could be a byproduct of some other trait that’s adaptive; it could have been selected for indirectly. Or it could emerge from essentially random fluctuations in gene frequencies that take hold in populations because they neither help nor hinder survival and reproduction. And in humans of course there are things like cultural traditions, forethought, and technological intervention (as when a gene for near-sightedness is rendered moot with contact lenses). The debate got personal and heated, but in the end evolutionary psychology survived Gould’s criticisms. Outsiders could even be forgiven for suspecting that Gould actually helped the field by highlighting some of its weaknesses. He, in fact, didn’t object in principle to the study of human behavior from the perspective of biological evolution; he just believed the earliest attempts were far too facile. Still, there are grudges being harbored to this day.

            Another way to look at the debate between Dawkins and Gould, one which lies at the heart of the current debate over group selection, is that Dawkins favored reductionism while Gould preferred holism. Dawkins always wants to get down to the most basic unit. His “‘central theorem’ of the extended phenotype” is that “An animal’s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it” (233). Reductionism, despite its bad name, is an extremely successful approach to arriving at explanations, and it has a central role in science. Gould’s holistic approach, while more inclusive, is harder to quantify and harder to model. But there are several analogues to natural selection that suggest ways in which higher-order processes might be important for changes at lower orders. Regular interactions between bodies—or even between groups or populations of bodies—may be crucial in accounting for changes in gene frequencies the same way software can impact the functioning of hardware or symbolic thoughts can determine patterns of neural connections.

            The question becomes whether or not higher-level processes operate regularly enough that their effects can’t safely be assumed to average out over time. One pitfall of selfish gene thinking is that it lends itself to the conflation of definitions and explanations. Evolution can be defined as changes in gene frequencies. But assuming a priori that competition at the level of genes causes those changes means running the risk of overlooking measurable outcomes of processes at higher levels. The debate, then, isn’t over whether evolution occurs at the level of genes—it has to—but rather over what processes lead to the changes. It could be argued that Gould, in his magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which was finished shortly before his death, forced Dawkins into making just this mistake. Responding to the book in an essay in his own book A Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins writes,

Gould saw natural selection as operating on many levels in the hierarchy of life. Indeed it may, after a fashion, but I believe that such selection can have evolutionary consequences only when the entities selected consist of “replicators.” A replicator is a unit of coded information, of high fidelity but occasionally mutable, with some causal power over its own fate. Genes are such entities… Biological natural selection, at whatever level we may see it, results in evolutionary effects only insofar as it gives rise to changes in gene frequencies in gene pools. Gould, however, saw genes only as “book-keepers,” passively tracking the changes going on at other levels. In my view, whatever else genes are, they must be more than book-keepers, otherwise natural selection cannot work. If a genetic change has no causal influence on bodies, or at least on something that natural selection can “see,” natural selection cannot favour or disfavour it. No evolutionary change will result. (221-222)

Thus we come full circle as Dawkins comes dangerously close to acknowledging Gould’s original point about the selfish gene idea. With the book-keeper metaphor, Gould wasn’t suggesting that genes are perfectly inert. Of course, they cause something—but they don’t cause natural selection. Genes build bodies and influence behaviors, but natural selection acts on bodies and behaviors. Genes are the passive book-keepers with regard to the effects of natural selection, even though they’re active agents with regard to bodies. Again, the question becomes, do the processes that happen at higher levels of analysis operate with enough regularity to produce measurable changes in gene frequencies that a strict gene-level analysis would miss or obscure? Yes, evolution is genetic change. But the task of evolutionary biologists is to understand how those changes come about.

            Gould died in May of 2002, in the middle of a correspondence he had been carrying on with Dawkins regarding how best to deal with an emerging creationist propaganda campaign called intelligent design, a set of ideas they both agreed were contemptible nonsense. These men were in many ways the opposing generals of the so-called Darwin Wars in the 1990s, but, as exasperated as they clearly got with each other’s writing at times, they always seemed genuinely interested and amused with what the other had to say. In his essay on Gould’s final work, Dawkins writes,

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is such a massively powerful last word, it will keep us all busy replying to it for years. What a brilliant way for a scholar to go. I shall miss him. (222)


[I’ve narrowed the scope of this post to make the ideas as manageable as possible. This account of the debate leaves out many important names and is by no means comprehensive. A good first step if you’re interested in Dawkins’s and Gould’s ideas is to read The Selfish Gene and Full House.]  
Read Part 2: Steven Pinker Falls Prey to the Averaging Fallacy Sober and Wilson Tried to Warn him about.
And Part 3: The People Who Evolved Our Genes for Us: Christopher Boehm on Moral Origins.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Self-Transcendence Price Tag: A Review of Alex Stone's Fooling Houdini


Psychologist Paul Ekman is renowned for his research on facial expressions, and he frequently studies and consults with law enforcement agencies, legal scholars, and gamblers on the topic of reading people who don’t want to be read. In his book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, Ekman focuses on three emotions would-be lie detectors should be on the lookout for subtle expressions of. The first two—detection apprehension and deception guilt—are pretty obvious. But the third is more interesting. Many people actually enjoy deceiving others because, for one thing, the threat of detection is more thrilling to them than terrifying, and, for another, being able to pull off the deception successfully can give them a sense of “pride in the achievement, or feelings of smug contempt toward the target” (76). Ekman calls this “Duping Delight,” and he suggests it leads many liars to brag about their crimes, which in turn leads to them being caught.  The takeaway insight is that knowing something others don’t, or having the skill to trick or deceive others, can give us an inherently rewarding feeling of empowerment.
Alex Stone, in his new book Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind, suggests that duping delight is what drives the continuing development of the magician’s trade. The title refers to a bit of lore that has reached the status of founding myth among aficionados of legerdemain. Houdini used to boast that he could figure out the secret behind any magic trick if he saw it performed three times. Time and again, he backed up his claim, sending defeated tricksters away to nurse their wounded pride. But then came Dai Vernon, who performed for Houdini what he called the Ambitious Card, a routine in which a card signed by a volunteer and then placed in the middle of a deck mysteriously appears at the top. After watching Vernon go through the routine seven times, Houdini turned around and walked away in a huff. Vernon went on to become a leading figure in Twentieth Century magic, and every magician today has his (they’re almost all male) own version of Ambitious Card, which serves as a type of signature.
In Fooling Houdini, Stone explains that for practiced magicians, tricking the uninitiated loses its thrill over time. So they end up having to up the ante, and in the process novitiates find themselves getting deeper and deeper into the practice, tradition, culture, and society of magic and magicians. He writes,
Sure, it’s fun to fool laypeople, but they’re easy prey. It’s far more thrilling to hunt your own kind. As a result, magicians are constantly engineering new ways to dupe one another. A hierarchy of foolmanship, a who-fooled-whom pecking order, rules the conjuror’s domain. This gladiatorial spirit in turn drives considerable evolution in the art. (173)
Stone’s own story begins with a trip to Belgium to compete in the 2006 Magic Olympics. His interest in magic was, at the time, little more than an outgrowth of his interest in science. He’d been an editor at Discover magazine and had since gone on to graduate school in physics at Columbia University. But after the Magic Olympics, where he performed dismally and was left completely humiliated and averse to the thought of ever doing magic again, he gradually came to realize that one way or another he would have to face his demons by mastering the art he’d only so far dabbled in. Fooling Houdini chronicles how Stone became obsessed with developing his own personalized act and tweaking it to perfection, and how he went from being a pathetic amateur to a respectable semi-professional. The progress of a magician, Stone learns from Jeff McBride, follows “four cardinal stations of magic: Trickster, Sorcerer, Oracle, and Sage” (41). And the resultant story as told in Stone’s book follows an eminently recognizable narrative course, from humiliation and defeat to ever-increasing mastery and self-discovery.
            Fooling Houdini will likely appeal to the same audience as did Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s book about how he ended up winning the U.S. Memory Championships. Foer, in fact, makes a guest appearance in Fooling Houdini when Stone seeks out his expertise to help him memorize a deck of cards for an original routine of his own devising. (He also gave the book a nice plug for the back cover.) The appeal of both books comes not just from the conventional narrative arc but also from the promise of untapped potential, a sense that greater mastery, and even a better life, lie just beyond reach, accessible to anyone willing to put in those enchanted ten thousand hours of training made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s the same thing people seem to love about TED lectures, the idea that ideas will almost inevitably change our lives. Nathan Heller, in a recent New Yorker article, attempts to describe the appeal of TED conferences and lectures in terms that apply uncannily well to books like Foer’s and Stone’s. Heller writes,
Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when “nothing excited me anymore”; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. (73)
The way they make us feel is similar to the way a good magic show can make us feel—like anything is possible, like on the other side of this great idea that breaks down the walls of our own limitations is a better, fuller, more just, and happier life. “Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places?” Heller asks.
Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a generic TED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from it substance. (73-4)
Joshua Foer at his own TED lecture
At their core, Fooling Houdini and Moonwalking with Einstein—and pretty much every TED lecture—are about transforming yourself, and to a somewhat lesser degree the world, either with new takes on deep-rooted traditions, reconnection with ancient wisdom, or revolutionary science.
            Foer presumably funded the epic journey recounted in Moonwalking with his freelance articles and maybe with expense accounts from the magazines he wrote for. Still, it seems you could train to become a serviceable “mental athlete” without spending all that much money. Not so with magic. Stone’s prose is much more quirky and slightly more self-deprecatory than Foer’s, and in one of his funniest and most revealing chapters he discusses some of the personal and financial costs associated with his obsession. The title, “It’s Annoying and I Asked You to Stop,” is a quote from a girlfriend who was about to dump him. The chapter begins,
One of my biggest fears is that someday I’ll be audited. Not because my taxes aren’t in perfect order—I’m very OCD about saving receipts and keeping track of my expenses, a habit I learned from my father—but because it would bring me face-to-face with a very difficult and decidedly lose-lose dilemma in which I’d have to choose between going to jail for tax fraud and disclosing to another adult, in naked detail, just how much money I’ve spent on magic over the years. (That, and I’d have to fess up to eating at Arby’s multiple times while traveling to magic conventions.) (159)
Having originally found magic fun and mentally stimulating, Stone ends up being seduced into spending astronomical sums by the terrible slight he received from the magic community followed by a regimen of Pavlovian conditioning based on duping delight. Both Foer’s and Stone’s stories are essentially about moderately insecure guys who try to improve themselves by learning a new skill set.
The market for a renewed sense of limitless self-potential is booming. As children, it seems every future we can imagine for ourselves is achievable—that we can inhabit them all simultaneously—so whatever singular life we find ourselves living as adults inevitably falls short of our dreams. We may have good jobs, good relationships, good health, but we can’t help sometimes feeling like we’re missing out on something, like we’re trapped in overscheduled rutted routines of workaday compromise. After a while, it becomes more and more difficult to muster any enthusiasm for much of anything beyond the laziest indulgences like the cruises we save up for and plan months or years in advance, the three-day weekend at the lake cottage, a shopping date with an old friend, going out to eat with the gang. By modern, middle-class standards, this is the good life. What more can we ask for?
What if I told you, though, that there’s a training regimen that will make you so much more creative and intelligent that you’ll wonder after a few months how you ever managed to get by with a mind as dull as yours is now? What if I told you there’s a revolutionary diet and exercise program that is almost guaranteed to make you so much more attractive that even your friends won’t recognize you? What if I told you there’s a secret set of psychological principles that will allow you to seduce almost any member of the opposite sex, or prevail in any business negotiation you ever engage in? What if I told you you’ve been living in a small dark corner of the world, and that I know the way to a boundless life of splendor?
If you can convince people you know how to broaden the contours of selfhood and show them the world as they’ve never experienced it before, if you can give them the sense that their world is expanding, they’ll at the very least want to keep talking to you so they can keep the feeling going and maybe learn what your secret is. Much of this desire to better ourselves is focused on our social lives, and that’s why duping delight is so seductive—it gives us a taste of what it’s like to be the charismatic and irresistible characters we always expected ourselves to become. This is how Foer writes about his mindset at the outset of his memory training, after he’d read about the mythic feats of memory champion Ben Pridmore:
What would it mean to have all that otherwise-lost knowledge at my fingertips? I couldn’t help but think that it would make me more persuasive, more confident and, in some fundamental sense, smarter. Certainly I’d be a better journalist, friend, and boyfriend. But more than that, I imagined that having a memory like Ben Pridmore’s would make me an altogether more attentive, perhaps even wiser, person. To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. (7)
Stone strikes a similar chord when he’s describing what originally attracted him to magic back when he was an awkward teenager. He writes,
In my mind, magic was also a disarming social tool, a universal language that transcended age and gender and culture. Magic would be a way out of my nerdiness. That’s right, I thought magic would make me less nerdy. Or at the very least it would allow me to become a different, more interesting nerd. Through magic, I would be able to navigate awkward social situations, escape the boundaries of culture and class, connect with people from all walks of life, and seduce beautiful women. In reality, I ended up spending most of my free time with pasty male virgins. (5)
This last line echoes Foer’s observation that the people you find at memory competitions are “indistinguishable from those” you’d find at a “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert”? (189).
            Though Stone’s openness about his nerdiness at times shades into some obnoxious playing up of his nerdy credentials, it does lend itself to some incisive observations. One of the lessons he has to learn to become a better magician is that his performances have to be more about the audiences than they are about the tricks—less about duping and more about connecting. What this means is that magic isn’t the key to becoming more confident he hoped it would be; instead, he has to be more confident before he can be good at magic. For Stone, this means embracing, not trying to overcome, his nerdish tendencies. He writes,
Magicians like to pretend that they’re cool and mysterious, cultivating the image of the smooth operator, the suave seducer. Their stage names are always things like the Great Tomsoni or the Amazing Randi or the International Man of Mystery—never Alex the Magical Superdoofus or the Incredible Nerdini. But does all this posturing really make them look cooler? Or just more ridiculous for trying to hide their true stripes? Why couldn’t more magicians own up to their own nerdiness? Magic was geeky. And that was okay. (243)
Stone reaches this epiphany largely through the inspiration of a clown who, in a surprising twist, ends up stealing the show from many of the larger-than-life characters featured in Fooling Houdini. In an effort to improve his comfort while performing before crowds and thus to increase his stage presence, Stone works with his actress girlfriend, takes improv classes, and attends a “clown workshop” led by “a handsome man in his early forties named Christopher Bayes,” who begins by telling the class that “The clown is the physical manifestation of the unsocialized self… It’s the essence of the playful spirit before you were defeated by society, by the world” (235). Stone immediately recognizes the connection with magic. Here you have that spark of joyful spontaneity, that childish enthusiasm before a world where everything is new and anything is possible.
“The main trigger for laughter is surprise,” Bayes told us, speaking of how the clown gets his laughs. “There’s lots of ways to find that trigger. Some of them are tricks. Some of them are math. And some of them come from building something with integrity and then smashing it. So you smash the expectation and of what you think is going to happen. (239)
In smashing something you’ve devoted considerable energy to creating, you’re also asserting your freedom to walk away from what you’ve invested yourself in, to reevaluate your idea of what’s really important, to change your life on a whim. And surprise, as Bayes describes it, isn’t just the essential tool for comedians. Stone explains,
The same goes for the magician. Magic transports us to an absurd universe, parodying the laws of physics in a whimsical toying of cause and effect. “Magic creates tension,” says Juan Tamariz, “a logical conflict that it does not resolve. That’s why people often laugh after a trick, even when we haven’t done anything funny. Tamariz is also fond of saying that magic holds a mirror up to our impossible desires. We all would like to fly, see the future, know another’s thoughts, mend what has been broken. Great magic is anchored to a symbolic logic that transcends its status as an illusion. (239)
Stone’s efforts to become a Sage magician have up till this point in the story entailed little more than a desperate stockpiling of tricks. But he comes to realize that not all tricks jive with his personality, and if he tries to go too far outside of character his performances come across as strained and false. This is the stock ironic trope that this type of story turns on—he starts off trying to become something great only to discover that he first has to accept who he is. He goes on relaying the lessons of the clown workshop,
“Try to proceed with a kind of playful integrity,” Chris Bayes told us. “Because in that integrity we actually find more possibility of surprise than we do in an idea of how to trick us into laughing. You bring it from yourself. And we see this little gift that you brought for us, which is the gift of your truth. Not an idea of your truth, but the gift of your real truth. And you can play forever with that, because it’s infinite. (244)
What’s most charming about the principle of proceeding with playful integrity is that it applies not just to clowning and magic, but to almost every artistic and dramatic endeavor—and even to science. “Every truly great idea, be it in art or science,” Stone writes, “is a kind of magic” (289). Aspirants may initially be lured into any of these creative domains by the promise of greater mastery over other people, but the true sages end up being the ones who are the most appreciative and the most susceptible to the power of the art to produce in them that sense of playfulness and boundless exuberance.
Being fooled is fun, too, because it’s a controlled way of experiencing a loss of control. Much like a roller coaster or a scary movie, it lets you loosen your grip on reality without actually losing your mind. This is strangely cathartic, and when it’s over you feel more in control, less afraid. For magicians, watching magic is about chasing this feeling—call it duped delight, the maddening ecstasy of being a layperson again, a novice, if only for a moment. (291)
“Just before Vernon,” the Man Who Fooled Houdini, “died,” Stone writes, “comedian and amateur magician Dick Cavett asked him if there was anything he wished for.” Vernon answered, “I wish somebody could fool me one more time” (291). Stone uses this line to wrap up his book, neatly bringing the story full-circle.
            Fooling Houdini is unexpectedly engrossing. It reads quite a bit different from the 2010 book on magic by neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, which they wrote with Sandra Blakeslee, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions. For one thing, Stone focuses much more on the people he comes to know on his journey and less on the underlying principles. And, though Macknik and Martinez-Conde also use their own education in the traditions and techniques of magic as a narrative frame, Stone gets much more personal. One underlying message of both books is that our sense of being aware of what’s going on around us is illusory, and that illusion makes us ripe for the duping. But Stone conveys more of the childlike wonder of magic, despite his efforts at coming across as a stylish hipster geek. Unfortunately, when I got to the end I was reminded of the title of a TED lecture that’s perennially on the most-watched list, Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability,” which I came away from scratching my head because it seemed utterly nonsensical.
Arthur Aron
            It’s interesting that duping delight is a feeling few anticipate and many fail to recognize even as they’re experiencing it. It is the trick that ends up being played on the trickster. Like most magic, it takes advantage of a motivational system that most of us are only marginally aware of, if at all. But there’s another motivational system and another magic trick that makes things like TED lectures so thrilling. It’s also the trick that makes books like Moonwalking with Einstein and Fooling Houdini so engrossing. Arthur and Elaine Aron use what’s called “The Self-Expansion Model” to explain what attracts us to other people, and even what attracts us to groups of people we end up wanting to identify with. The basic idea is that we’re motivated to increase our efficacy, not with regard to achieving any specific goals but in terms of our general potential. One of the main ways we seek to augment our potential is by establishing close relationships with other people who have knowledge or skills or resources that would contribute to our efficacy. Foer learns countless mnemonic techniques from guys like Ed Cooke. Stone learns magic from guys like Wes James. Meanwhile, we readers are getting a glimpse of all of it through our connection with Foer and Stone.
"Dr. Myron Fox"
            Self-expansion theory is actually somewhat uplifting in its own right because it offers a more romantic perspective on our human desire to associate with high-status individuals and groups. But the triggers for a sense of self-expansion are probably pretty easy to mimic, even for those who lack the wherewithal or the intention to truly increase our potential or genuinely broaden our horizons. Indeed, it seems as though self-expansion has become the main psychological principle exploited by politicians, marketers, and P.R. agents. This isn’t to say we should discount every book or lecture that we find uplifting, but we should keep in mind that there are genuine experiences of self-expansion and counterfeit ones. Heller’s observation about how TED lectures are more about presentation than substance, for instance, calls to mind an experiment done in the early 1970s in which Dr. Myron Fox gave a lecture titled “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” His audience included psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and graduate students, virtually all of whom rated his ideas and his presentation highly. But Dr. Fox wasn’t actually a doctor; he was the actor Michael Fox. And his lecture was designed to be completely devoid of meaningful content but high on expressiveness and audience connection. The Dr. Fox Effect is the term now used to describe our striking inability to recognize nonsense coming from the mouths of charismatic speakers.

         And if keeping our foolability in mind somehow makes that sense of self-transcendence elude us today, "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—"