Sunday, March 21, 2004

Evolutionary Psychology - or Why are "all" our leaders Old White Guys?

P.S. Yes I know there are reports that Al-Zawahiri has claimed Alqueda has a suitcase bomb. However, it should be noted that Alqueda has made if not completely false claims then occassionally stated grandiose aims with a hyperbolic sense of their achievement. The real question is was the tritium detonator charged and if it wasn't, then does Alqueda have the expertise and resources to recharge it? If it is, it's probably too late to stop their plans by now. If it isn't, then we've just dodged a bullet - no thanks to an Administration that hasn't paid serious attention to getting these damned things off the black market.

The Hidden Order of Political Power

Of course, there are always the exceptions. These exceptions exist to demonstrate that the elites of any given society are not completely excluding others from political power. They also exist because the elite of any society need some genuine talent to run things, and merit is not necessarily correlated with being part of the "in crowd" that is covertly and implicitly preferred by sociocultural status promotion. In these latter days of America, the term token minority has taken on especially derisive terms in the post Civil Rights Movement era. On the other hand, sufficiently "excellent" individuals have always been to some extent co-opted into the traditional power structure - both to obtain their services and to subvert outside challenges. Social mobility into the "hidden order of status" and its attendent rewards has always been as crucial a factor as wealth distribution between elites and commoners in maintaining social stability.

However it cannot be denied that there is an "invisible hand" that is just as powerful or perhaps more powerful than the market, or sometimes collusionary and reinforcement, in creating implicit sociocultural status promotion preferences. For anyone who argues differently, it must be reminded that Slavery and Apartheid exist as extreme examples of this process. A more ordinary observation, is why are the overwhelming majority of American leaders still older white men?

There is a hidden order to social status, that usually can be observed phenomenologically but is implicit and perniciously resistant to external manipulation of the formal hierarchy. This is usually framed in terms of "subtle" discrimination, but the oldman believes this actively misses the real truth. The underlying assumption of the concept of discrimination is that except for historical and or cultural factors, there would be an even playing field that if only prejudicial attitudes and behaviors were removed would result in an equal opportunity and proportional representation for all members of a society. The problem is that in searching for these prejudicial factors, one is forced to resort to ever more invocations of subtle and unconscious bias and/or discrimination.

This underlying assumption is false the oldman believes, and the very nature of a society is to create a preferential status hierarchy and to generate rules that while ostensibly standardized are in fact by nature of focusing on some features rather than others by their nature intrinsically judgemental and exclusionary.

Heirs to the successes and fears of our Ancestors: Evolutionary Psychology

This may seem like a radical thesis, so to support it the oldman invokes evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology essentially is the idea that our minds are shaped by brains that are shaped by biological changes shaped by adaptations to the environment that took place over a long period of time. Not all evolutionary traits are deterministic, most merely create predispositions that react with environment. Others create features or faculties that can be used for a variety of purposes. Hands for instance can be used to play with beachballs or to build houses. Men have a tendency to want to have sex with women since this increases the chances of reproduction, but this is not to argue that evolutionary psychology mandates that men should only have sex with women. A good example is other species, in whom the mating urge takes vastly different forms. Many species mate only once a year - or once in their lives! We should not try to take evolution as an argument that any particular arrangement (monogamy, polygamy, hetrosexuality, homosexuality, etc. ) is "natural" or "unnatural". Evolution makes no judgement, it merely creates the capacity or tendency. Indeed, often evolution results in diversity of adaptations and this diversity has the function of being a sort of "adaptive insurance" so that by creating a variety of results in any given situation it is more likely that at least some will survive and succeed even if other forms perish. To quote:

"Natural selection does not work "for the good of the species", as many people think."

Even with all these caveats however, Evolutionary Psychology is still a powerful tool for understanding "why things are the way they are" as long as we do not confuse it with the notion that this is only or best result of those shaping forces. Our lives are within our own hands to determine, but those lives are not blank slates - they come imprinted with certain freedoms, restrictions, and strongly emergent trends that we then shape into particular choices and results.

The Mind of a Small Tribe Primate

What set off the oldman in this particular case was the writer John Bruce who has a slightly off-beat but sometimes highly interesting blogg called "In the Shadows of Hollywood". In it, John discusses in one particular case "The Theory of the Lead Narcissist". To quote briefly from John:

In trying to make some overall sense of what happened in the Bob Willis story, I re-read C.S.Lewis's essay "The Inner Ring", which I'm very happy to see is on line. Lewis begins by quoting a page from Tolstoy's War and Peace, in which a young lieutenant, Boris, sees to his initial puzzlement an old general who is acting deferential to a captain, putting up with the captain's discourtesy in interrupting him to talk to Boris. Lewis observes:

[T]he young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies... The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organized secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it...

I think the dual-hierarchy insight from Tolstoy and C.S.Lewis goes some way to explaining why this happened.

"Inner rings", according to Lewis, exist for two reasons; the one I'm most interested in here is to exempt the initiates from ordinary rigors of their disciplines or professions. Willis was tolerated, it would seem, until his self-exemptions threatened to become something his higher-ups could no longer brush off on their own -- for example, abusiveness toward female subordinates that could potentially bring in Human Resources, the company lawyers, and even outside authority. The situation, I think, is roughly as Lewis describes...

The actual factors that make someone eligible for high status in the "dual hierarchy" are inscrutable. Whatever they are, Willis had them. I think almost everyone who knew him would (at least in unguarded moments) describe him as unbalanced and corrupt -- I suspect there's a relationship.

What John suggests as a "perversion" a puzzling recurrence in various organizations and political structures, I would call an unfortunate permutation of a wholly endemic feature of homo sapiens that can be explained through using evolutionary psychology.

I think what it comes down to is that humans are a social animal, and that 'politics' is just not a formal battle for organizational positions - but there is an underlying emotional, social, and cultural negotiation and conflict resolution regarding who get's the top positions created in order to be filled by such persons?

Such a political order is not good or bad intrinsically, but when it is driven by dysfunctional values it can prove obstructionist since it exists to propagate itself rather than serve a utilitarian purpose.

There is always a dividing line between those who must live by the rules and those who make the rules.

This exists for a very good evolutionary reason I believe. All rules are context dependent. In order to create cooperative group behavior, leaders must at a very basic tribal primate level create rules of conduct and evaluation.

However since situations change, those rules must be ammended from time to time. Thus the one's who are allowed to break the rules, are the leaders. If the leaders or elites break the rules merely to benefit their own short term interests, the political structure becomes dysfunctional.

When they break them in order to advance necessary social change in adaptation to the environment and circumstances, then it serves the original purpose. This explains a lot of human behavior.

"I AM NOT AN APE!" No, you are more than an ape. Nonetheless, the basic archicture explains a great deal

The oldman does not mean to suggest that human beings are simply behaving like a small pack of primates. Humans are clearly much more complex, sophisticated, and if nothing else dangerous in their technology, art, language, culture, and self-awareness than simple or even higher primates. Whether the difference is in one of kind or degree, humans are far and away above the rest of the primate family in behavior and cognition. Some might call this an improvement, and some might argue that, but it's certainly different. I don't think that an "alien" xenobiologist coming upon a planet filled mostly with non-human primates would be able to except in a wildly "science fiction" fashion extrapolate far enough to predict the emergence of human beings in their full present homo sapiens glory.

Human beings clearly are impacted in their behavior by evolutionary psychology, and nowhere is this more evident than social dynamics of sexual reproduction. It should be noted that in primates there are a diversity of behaviors as discussed above, where evolution cannot be considered as a deterministic force in behavior however strongly shaping a force it is. The oldman has not been the first one to notice such a similarity between corporate structure and primate hierarchies (ABC-news).

While comparing the wealthy to the wild might seem a little harsh, author Richard Conniff says it makes perfect sense. In his book, The Natural History of the Rich, Conniff writes that executives climbing to the top of corporate ladders exhibit mannerisms that are quite similar to those displayed by silverback gorillas.
"It's chest-beating. It's glowering," Conniff told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "You know, that kind of quick, sharp stare."

While corporate types may not literally beat their chests in the middle of a meeting, they often perform the verbal equivalent.

"These people all dominate with shouting, tyrannizing people and by sheer physical presence," Conniff said. "And that's exactly what an alpha male does in a chimp troupe or among gorillas."

So are we born to be ruled by jerks and losers?!?!?

As the oldman has maintained, evolution is a shaping force and not a determining one. One of the reasons is that there may be competing drives, trends, and instincts. Even as the "invisible hand" of the social preference hierarchy is at work, there is also a trend toward adaptive meritocracy:

Mr. Boehm argues that egalitarianism amounts to the overthrow of "alpha males" -- powerful, dominant men -- by rank-and-file members of a society who individually have little power but who, by cooperating with one another, can impose their collective will on the alphas.

As a group, the powerless members of the society foster egalitarianism by creating a taboo on the exercise of power by the alphas, Mr. Boehm concludes. The society must be ready to suppress upstart alphas who would seek to supplant the egalitarian arrangement, he says. As a modern example, Mr. Boehm cites the decline of former Rep. Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, from his heyday as Speaker of the House of Representatives. "As Gingrich began to wield some serious power, he exuded a certain air of dominance and his peers in Congress found ways to cut him down to size," Mr. Boehm writes.

"Egalitarian societies constitute a very special type of hierarchy, one in which the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs," he writes.

Here is a more technical review of Boehm's book. Here are some insightful but more accessible language musings on the topic.

However the most relevant aspect is the relationship between status and division of labor (PDF).

The main idea is that cooperative behavior requires an organizing principle, and that the dominant individuals or elites are produced through trait preference by the sociocultural promotion trends of the organizing principle. The elites then act both as the main beneficiaries, enforcers, and directors of the division of labor in the rest of society. The rest of society acquiesces to this in order to better produce the efficiencies of organized cooperation. However, the traits associated with such elite status may be superficial and misleading, while the human tendency in order to favor their offspring can lead to a sociolcultural promotion preference that selects for obsolete or neglicent traits.

As an example read here about some very bitter short people.

That may be amusing, and the oldman finds it so - but then again he's average height and above average height for his ethnic group. In a modern society, one would think that with technology that such differences would have been almost entirely negated. Indeed, there is an old saying that "It was God who made men, but it was Colt who made them equal." The idea being that a six-shooter revolver made one man essentially on a level playing ground as any other man. Indeed, in this age of keyboards, coding, satellites, and bombs fired incredible distances at incredible accuracy by the push of a button the old measures of strength and/or ability are mostly outdated.

However, try telling that to girls you're trying to date if you're a short guy! In other words, times may have changed but humans have inheirited an antiquated mental system to deal with it. This biologically and socially predisposed behavior does not have to be destiny. Indeed, some men develop outsize ego's whose accompanying confidence compensates for their physical shortness in the eyes of women - many women have cited to the oldman "confidence" as the number one feature attracting them.

However, this creates group dynamics which are sometimes hard to fathom. It is not of course old white men who dominate in all cultures. Sometimes is it is old asian men, or middle-aged indigenous men, and sometimes men are barred from certain otherwise prestigious or important activities or females granted certain advantages. Many a man has noted that a woman who is willing to shed tears and say she's sorry is forgiven a trespass sooner than a man who commits a similar deed. However the point is that there is an "invisible" preference structure that is implicitly built in, and in a given circumstance it discriminates certain people by emphasis on certain qualifying and/or identifying traits and that it directs those persons toward certain divisions of labor.

The most relevant one being certain older white men, since not all white men or old men qualify but only some, toward positions of authority and power from which they can both make rules governing others and be exempt from them. The purpose of their exemption being tied to their ability delegated by the group to make and/or change the rules for the collective. When this runs amok, as it often has, we call it the kind of narcissitic / despotic alpha type found by John Bruce in his example Mr. Willis and the unseen pecking order that showed him deference and assisted him to climb the heights of status and power.

So Are We Doomed To Be Victims Of Our Biology?

No. However, one cannot simply ignore it. Many a woman or minority has complained about the infamous "glass ceiling". This "glass ceiling" is created by rules and evaluation criteria that however objectively standardized are by subtle shifts in emphasis or implementation allow some progress but deter the advancement of many individuals lacking certain traits in order to achieve the highest levels of success. It is emphasized here that it is not a matter of actively discriminating against certain traits, which can happen, but it is sufficient to emphasize certain traits that indirectly exclude all others who do not fall into a very narrow range or category.

For instance, if it is necessary to work about 15 years day and night to make law partner starting about about the age of twenty then this requirement while seemingly "objective" will bar most women from becoming law partner. Indeed, this applies to many fields. It is arguable that some of this "discrimination" comes from unequal childrearing burdens among partners, or male partners being less supportive of their mate's career choices. That may be true, but it is also true that in the oldman's experience women tend to evaluate a man's career success as a strong determinant of his desirability as a mate. If men are going to be judged that way, perhaps it is understandable why some of them choose to protect their career - if they lose that then the woman may dump them anyway! Such an explanation also doesn't explain why minority males would be similarly excluded.

The point isn't to argue the correctness of gender or ethnic discrimination. Indeed, these miss the point. It is to argue how can we open up the invisible order and teach people to access it and be allowed in? Does that seem impossible? The oldman himself has made the transition somewhat and is probing so far succesfully for further success, despite having traits not necessarily in line with that kind of success. Then there is indomitable Margeret Thatcher. However, we must ask why aren't there more "Colin Powells"? Where is the "Democratic Colin Powell"?

This is the challenge posing itself to my mind. Is it possible to teach how to be a dominant and elite, and how to gain acceptance and success in the power structure of a society? And is it possible to teach that to talented people so that they can use that political ascendency to promote their own merit, rather than having the power structure associated with antiquated superficial traits or ingrained nepotism? If it is, then that may be a better route to reforming dysfunctional elite preference tendencies than to attempt to externally manipulate outcomes.


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