Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Anthropomorophic Thoughts on Social Engineering

While biking one day this summer, I saw two deer crossing the road in front of me … gracefully, quietly, carefully. Around here deer are considered pests, but I still feel honored to see them. As the lead deer cleared the fence on the far side of the road, it turned its head back and seemed to signal the second, who then crossed quickly. I thought they were friends, maybe, looking out for one another. Wait, I said to myself, I’m reading too much Harry Potter lately. These are not people. Don’t anthropomorphize.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? As soon as I got into my car and turned the radio on, there was that word again. NPR was talking about baboons. “We try not to anthropomorphize,” said the primate scientist. He thought it was all right to do so for generating hypotheses, but such thoughts have to be tested experimentally. As he described his somewhat fiendish experiments with baboon psychology and the nature of baboon culture, I was anthropomorphizing like crazy and it wasn’t making me happy.

Baboons live in large groups with ferocious pecking orders. The female pecking order is rigidly hierarchical based on status at birth. It is enforced by all the relatives of the high-ranking females. None can successfully avoid or challenge it. Males, however, leave the tribes after maturity to find a new tribe where they will have to fight for their positions in a dynamic pecking order. Aggression is the coin of that realm, and it doesn’t sound like much fun either.

I thought to myself, being an anthropomorphizing fool, “Why the hell don’t they just leave?” I mean, I couldn’t stand it. If you find yourself being picked on – and everyone gets picked on by the next one up – why don’t you just get with a few low ranking pals, grab a few low-ranking females of the foxy baboon persuasion, and make for parts unknown? I remember reading about the fossilized hominid footprints, a single male and female, possibly with a child, walking through the outskirts of recently fallen volcanic dust. I found that very appealing. Why wouldn’t it be appealing to baboons?

The answer of course is that baboons have their own priorities. Maybe they don’t mind being part of a hierarchy. Maybe they enjoy it like we enjoy football. Plus, I imagine the large groups enhance survival when there are leopards and who-knows-what all about. Not that I’d like to face off a lion with a baseball bat or anything, but I imagine it’s a little harder when stick technology hasn’t appeared yet. Baboons defend the tribe from predators by massing phalanxes of males, armed formidably with fangs and claws and numbers. Since baboons are not all that large, compared to the potential predators, smaller numbers might be insufficient.

Pecking orders appear among all types of animals, including the human variety. The typical explanation is that it is a mechanism to cut down on fighting. Since we already know the outcome, why should we take a chance of getting injured? So the pecking order is good for the individual and good for the group. The downside, however, is that reproductive success probably correlates with the position in the pecking order. I have heard that high-ranking females sometimes kill the offspring of low-ranking females among Chimpanzees. I suspect it’s the same with baboons.

It seems to me more likely that hierarchies persist for simple self-perpetuating reasons – because they can. Any gene that increases the tendency to protect the rank of family members will thereby further its reproductive success. From a gene’s point of view, allowing the low-ranking females to propagate uses up resources that could be used for propagating high-ranking genes. So why don’t they just drive the low-ranking females away? Well, aside from the real risk involved in such a confrontation, it may be very hard to do. The outcasts would hang on for dear life and could not be strategically severed completely. They would take measures to ingratiate themselves or they might try to detach some of the males. Therein lies the real reason that the elites don’t drive the low-rankers away. They need a large troop of females to attract the males, and they need the males for defense as well as reproduction.

Now, why would the males want to leave? As Americans we probably relate better to that aspect of baboon culture. The stultifying hierarchy of the females seems unfair and depressing. The freewheeling one-on-one competition of the males is, at least, more fair. I can see why they would want to leave. But why do they leave? Well, they need to maintain genetic diversity, avoid inbreeding. Seems sensible, but why do they leave? Well, like maple seeds the opportunities for long-term survival of their genes improves by rapid dispersion. OK, but that applies to all genes. Why do they leave? Why not the females as well?


The answers you get can be centered on the individual, the group/tribe or the gene, but there is another way of looking at it. There is an information processing perspective as well. The hierarchies accomplish something. The female hierarchy preserves the historical story of the baboon environment. The male hierarchy processes new messages, carrying new and more accurate information up the priority queue. In this view of the world, the species represents an increasingly accurate map of the environment.

So the obvious question: if it’s a map, could we read it? Could we ever get to the point where we could look at a code, transcribe it to a computer perhaps, and ascertain the many aspects of baboon life from a purely analytic approach? I don’t think so, for the following reason: natural selection is more holographic than graphic. It works on every aspect of the creature at once, distinguishes every kind of genetic, epigenetic, and autocatalytic capacity that the creature has access to – genes, germs, memes and worms – including many dimensions, I suspect, that we have not yet discovered and some that we may not be able to discover. The gene, itself, as well as other replicators, is really only a symbiont. And, in essence, the only way to transcribe its code is with another baboon, bred and raised within a historically uninterrupted society of baboons. Likewise the information processing structure of a troop of baboons can be transcribed only in context. And this is what we mean by organic.


So what good is it to speculate that the social arrangements of baboons serve as an information processing structure with the honed evolutionary purpose of optimizing the environmental tracking? Since we have no real way of reading the structure, what can we gain? The answer is that we can simulate it in stripped down computational terms. Similar approaches, using chaos theory for example, have allowed us to simulate the mass performance of a flock of birds. Without being able to predict the movement of a single bird, or any given flock, we can produce a computer generated group performance using very simple mathematical rules. And the result is a flowing, swooping burst of lifelike beauty. It doesn't predict anything at all, but it captures our instinct of the movement. It looks right.

In addition to simulation there is also emulation. We recognize that the baboon system is self-sustaining and powerful in the baboon context. We also know, however, that the human system is not self-sustaining and not particularly effective at solving human problems. So, taking the concept of organic information processing to heart, let us design a system which will work to organize the memetic turmoil of our own species into a functioning optimizer that is capable of subsuming the sum total of the human environment into manageable data flows. If we keep clear in our minds the characteristics of these kinds of structures, perhaps we can piece together some non-contradictory components that will actually work.


What, then, might be a human analog for these parallel hierarchies? I think first of Jared Diamond’s assessment of Medieval Europe as a set of separated fiefdoms lots of little contentious tribelike, each copying one another and trying to outdo one another. Due to geography there was enough cross-pollination to keep things growing and enough separation to allow independent development. Innovations could develop, be tested and spread themselves to the next valley. If one tribe fell far enough behind, the others replaced them, consumed and removed them. Learn quick or disappear. Europe was tracking its environment through experiment, change and natural selection. The end result was Science, Enlightenment, Democracy and the US Constitution.

China at the same time was a vast hierarchy, a simple tree structure dependent on a single root. It was awesomely equipped to execute the will of a single individual dedicated to a single way of life. When that individual directed China to explore the world, then China amassed a great fleet of discovery, a treasure fleet such as had never been seen before. And when that individual decided to turn China in on itself, progress ended. Change ended, and China slowly deteriorated. People merely had to conform to the wishes of those above them in the pecking order. Innovation had no mechanism by which it could move up the ladder. The only natural selection was akin to that of the female baboons. When the ideas of China went like little boy baboons to Europe, then they could make a difference, which eventually reached China again after 500 years.


The US government, however, was designed specifically to embody both approaches. Lots of little states are trying their own solutions within circumscribed arenas. At the same time, a central government maintains a firm top-down grip within its own arena of control, also limited. The two houses of Congress, while not explicitly inspired by baboons, were intended to emulate the basic idea. The Senate was originally intended to represent the aristocratic top down character of the strongest countries in Europe. The Founders expected Senators to come from the leading families, appointed by the Governor or some elite commission as determined with each separate state or commonwealth. The House was closer in concept to the contentious workings of the British House of Commons or the democracy of ancient Greece. Commoners would vote!

To me, the wisdom of the Founders seems astonishing. Knowing what I do of today's political climate, it's very difficult for me to understand how they were able to transcend the bickering and the self-interest to accomplish what they did. Think about this: no one knew whether it would work at all.


Now, getting down to brass tacks, what is it about the our system that allows it to track our needs, our hopes and desires, so much better than other places we could name?

Here's how I answer:

  1. Multiple paths of access to power and influence.

  2. Wide social dispersion of power centers and government functions.

  3. Limitation of power centers to focused areas of responsibility, subject to effective overview by others.

  4. Aggregation of compromise beginning at low levels.

  5. A dedication to visible processes.

  6. Filtered but effective information flow.

  7. Widespread adherence to critical processes and reliable expectations based on codification, history and tradition.

  8. Frequent government personnel review and adjustment driven by the true desires of an ultimately sovereign populace.

  9. Appropriate protection of individuals and their personal choices.

  10. The capacity to decisively focus power when necessary to address real and substantial problems and the ability to make wise choices.

These points are widely understood in the US. I just say them differently. (Maybe number 4 is a little more different.) The way I describe them is designed to generalize and emphasize the algorithmic nature of our system, and also to delineate the separate components in such a manner that we can recognize that each factor lies on a continuum. Theoretically we would like to extend and intensify each item without compromising the others. Unfortunately, all of them seem to militate against the last, and economic considerations constrain them all.

I think that the formal protocols (7) and the deliberate diffusion of power (1, 2, 3, 8) are key to the Constitution. Human rights (9) are a result. The factors that we need to emphasize much more are the information processing aspects (1, 4, 5, 6) and the survival aspects (4, 10). And I believe we should do it with a codified algorithmic adjustment to the current system.

The Usual List:

Popular Sovereignty

Rule of Law

Separation of Powers and a System of Checks and Balances

Judicial Review

Individual Rights

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