University of Pennsylvania Evolutionary Psychologist Visits UNL

Dr. Robert Kurzban, Professor of , at the University of Pennsylvania, a brilliant vertical and horizontal thinker whose work on evolutionary gaming has been noted in The Economist, speed dating by The Philadelphia Inquirer, stopped by ‘s Political Science Department today.

I was able to spend more than three hours with Dr. Kurzban. He talked informally in the morning with a small group of graduate students, and with a powerpoint in the afternoon with both graduate students and faculty.

Dr. Robert Kurzban, Evolutionary Psychologist, Genius

But first, quick notes of appreciation and warning. One of my TA responsibilities conflicted with the morning sessions. Fortunately, the professor I teach under and my fellow TA were able to arrange things so I was able to talk with Dr. Kurzban. Their professionalism, warmth, and kindness is typical of the vast majority of our department, and I am thankful for that. And last, I pre-emptively apologize if I recalled or reconstructed any of the details of Dr. Kurzban’s talks incorrectly.

He was an amazing speaker, and I was very happy that I had the opportunity to hear him. Listening and talking to Dr. Kurzban made three very, very short hours.

Like Dr. Hibbing at the last “brownbag,” Dr. Kurzban complained about academic silencing. While he did not explicitly name political correctness, he did say

  • Feminist scholars view evolutionary biological from a political perspective. Dr. Kurzban said “I don’t care if you say ‘This theory is stupid. It’s not worth my time.’ But saying ‘This theory is a plot by The Man to keep women down’ is not useful.'”
  • Graduate students at one university petitioned the academic Senate to prohibit evolutionary psychologocial texts from being assigned by any professor. This was instigated when one black collegian said the theory “challenged her identity.”
  • Scientific American was cited as an example of critics confusing Evolutionary Psychology with Social Darwinism. As Dr. Kurzban said, “Social Darwinism was a political philosophy. Evolutionary Psychology is a scientific approach.”

As far as substantive comments, Dr. Kurzban went over many areas

  • While sex recognition is hard-wired, race recognition probably isn’t. For example, there is an experiment where two people, a white man and a black man, are having a conversation while walking down the street. For part of the conversation, the black man is behind a visual obstruction, and when he emerges from the other side, the black man’s role is played by a white man. Many audience members do not realize that anything unusual happened.

    However, if the black man’s role is replaced by a black woman, people immediately pick up on this. Dr Kurzban explained, “While it is important to know if something is prey, a predator, a mate, or a competitor, it’s not important to know if something is “black” or “white.”

  • Men are more cooperative than women. Dr. Kurzban talked about “competitive cooperation” as the basis for social cohesion. If a group of people are playing a game against each other, they will be fractious regardless of their gender make-up. However, if the players learn there is another group, all-male groups quickly settle their internal differences and cooperate with each other, without being told that they will be competing against the other group.
  • Racism exists as long as it is cheap. People can fall into racial roles when a group is playing with itself. However, once the other group is learned about, racial roles go away. The drive to prepare for competition against the out-group with the in-group by cooperating within the group overwhelms pre-existing racial treatment.
  • Women scramble social hierarchies. As part of their rapid cooperation in the face of competition, all-male groups establish a clear and consensual social order. This does not happen in mixed-sex or all-female groups. The situation in integrated or all-female groups is closer to anarchy, with no clear order-of-dominance ever being established.
  • Dancing, like martyrdom, is fun. Dr. Kurzban mentioned one area of research is why people like to dance. It can’t merely because it is physical or a sexual metaphor, because many physical activities and sexual metaphors are not fun. Kurzban’s opinion is that dancing is an evolved trait that encourages sexually integrated socialization.

    On Mark’s behalf, I asked what is an evolutionary psychological reason for martyrdom. Dr. Kurzban first noted that nearly all martyrs are males, so the answer is probably some form of social cooperation. (As an aside, Kurzban didn’t think it was an accident that the Jordanian female terrorist’s belt “malfunctioned.”) He mentioned that there probably was a kinship advantage for recognized martyrs, evolving over time in a world of small tribes. “Religious entrepreneurs” use this drive to further their beliefs.

    Kurzban noted that one theory is that traditionally weapons weren’t violent enough to inflict death, so perhaps the evolutionary root of martyrdom is the same as the evolutionary root of bravery. However, given the wide variety of low-tech ways to kill people, he doubted this as an explanation.

  • People are sensitive to the worst free-riders. Dr. Kurzban described the “public goods” game, in which everyone was given some money, and they could pocket some of it or put it on the table. Money on the table was doubled after a round, but split evenly among all the players.

    In almost all situations, almost all of the money is pocketed.

    But, people become very cooperative when cooperation is nonrecoverable and they see how much the least-cooperative person has put in. So every player begins by putting $1 on the table, and wait until every other player has done the same. Then one brave player will put a second on the table, wait until his contribution is matched, and continue.

    On the second round of this, people could not contribute fast enough. Literally — every player raced against the clock to put as much money on the table as they could. The only hold-up was when a particular player fell behind in the cooperation race – he would then have to throw more money on the table, which could take a second or two.

    The next best approach was when players could take money in or out, but still saw what the lowest-contributing player put in. Unlike where they saw what only the most contributing player put in, where almost everyone was a free rider, where they saw how the worst behaved the group was very cooperative. And the more rounds played, the more cooperative they became.

    This study was replicated in Japan with almost identical results. The graphs of the American game and the Japanese game were almost indistinguishable. Dr. Kurzban said this was a surprise to psychologies focusing on comparative cultural, who thought Japanese players would start out more cooperative than Americans, and after than learn cooperation at a slower rate.

  • People love to punish wrongdoers, especially when others are watching. Dr. Kurzban described a trust game, where Player A could split $20 between himself and Player B, or give it to Player B and have it double. Player B could then keep almost all the $40 for himself, or split it evenly with Player A.

    After Player A and Player B left, Player C was brought in as a “judge.” In places were Player B kept most of the money for himself, ignoring the trusting Player A, Player C could use some of her money to punish Player C at a 3-to-1 ratio.

    This was done under three different conditions. In all three Player C would have to write down his judgement on a sheet of paper.

    1. Player C gave his answer through a complicated system that guaranteed no one would ever know if and how much he punished Player A. Player C’s decision was completely anonymous.
    2. Player C wrote down if and how much he would punish Player A, knowing a researcher would look over the answer “just to make sure the paper was filled out correctly.”
    3. Player C announced his decision in front of the other players

    In all three cases Player C tended to punish Player A. Player C punished the least when it was secret, a lot when just one researcher knew, and a little bit more than that when everyone knew.

    Interestingly, in several cases, when Player C had to publicly announce his decision, Player C lied. Out of thoughtlessness, Dr. Kurzban had left the paper as the “real” way to punish Player A, and the announcement was supposed to be merely reading from the paper. In the cases where Player C lied, Player C claimed to have spent more money punishing Player A than he actually did.

Dr. Kurzban addressed some other issues, as well. But those make a post for another time…

10 thoughts on “University of Pennsylvania Evolutionary Psychologist Visits UNL”

  1. Thanks for a fascinating wrap up of an obviously fruitful area of research. (Am just visitor from ZenPundit.) Apropos of “evolutionary psychology” — this is unfortunately my first encounter of the term though I am fascinated at the various applictions which Dr. Kurzban has found. I like in particular the game-theoretic theme. But may I ask for a clarification. In Dr. Kurzban's concept what is it that “evolves” in evolutionary psychology? Does he subscribe to Dawkin's meme theory of infectious ideas evolving through space and time by using brains, books, newspapers, media, etc. as phenotypes? Altho “memetics” has gained some cachet, I don't think there is yet a true science by that name, because the genetics of ideas has never found as firm a basis as biochemistry has in deoxyribonucleic acid and its info-carrying capability. I wonder if Dr. Kurzban has some new concept that doesn't have this infirmity?

  2. Riza,

    Thanks for the comment. Dr. Kurzban discussed memetics without naming it, and had a lot of good to say about Dr. Dawkins. Specifically, he believed that anyone who red The Selfish Gene [1] was “80% along in understanding evolution.” Interestingly, he was critical of Stephen Jay Gould. Kurzban said that Gould just wasn't a top evolutionary biologist, and that Gould overemphasized punctuated equibilibrium.

    Interesting, Kurzban said human intelligence could not have evolved during puncuated equilibrium — what I have previously called periods of revolutionary remodeling [2]. Too many things have to evolve at once, in Kurzban's views, to get intelligent masss competition/nonkin-cooperation. And since this is an existence proof of slow darwinian evolution, Kurzban would say that there is no longer a need for puncuated equilibrium.

    (To me, it seems that Dr. Kurzban was using an “irreducible complexity” argument in favor of Darwinism, which is somewhat ironic… )

    Primarily, Dr. Kurzban believes that humans are strongly influenced by genetically evolved behaviors and ability. For instance, he views strong male cooperation, female hierarchical scrambling, dancing, etc, as genetically pre-built. It's possible to socialize against these behaviors (some cultures discourage dancing) and add additional behaviors (such as socially constructed racism), but humans can “default” to their genetic behaviors absent social sanctions very quickly.

    For comparison, while Dr Hibbing's speech [3] emphasized genetic differences within a population, Dr. Kurzban talked about ways all humans seem to be similar.

    I think Kurzban's politically correct enemies do know better. They realize that if human beings have such a strong internal nature, creating their New Style Society will be very expensive. Likewise, a generally conservative society becomes “cheaper.” Discrediting Kurzban (who I assume is a fellow liberal) is a rational political move by feminists, ethnic identitists, the editors of Scientific American, etc.

    Interestingly blog [4], btw. Fascinating seeing a Philippines-Iraq comparison from a filipino perspective.


  3. Thanks for indulging me. Some of the things you said here remind me of discussions ongoing now at Jim Bennet's Anglosphere site, Albion's Seedlings, where indeed I've had a chance to make that Filipino-Iraqi connection, and it has been well-received. I guess they liked the concept that there are “orphans of the Anglosphere.” I'm hoping Iraq won't be joining us.

    I think the recent topic there is a 5 dimensional cultural parametrization of various societies that I like to call the LINGOSPHERES of the world. And I have suggested that such LINGOSPHERES can have a DIAMETER that can be quantified based on a metric, which quantity is a measure of the society's gravity or cohesion. Fun stuff, nice to discover your site. I was a bit mystified by globalization in water, but i'll come more often to understand such things a lil better. My blog is less than 2 months old, but I've already met so many interesting people, like TDAXP>THANKS.

  4. Hi Dan,

    It would be interesting, though I'm certain a highly controversial proposition, to assign certain behavioral characteristics in evolutionary psychology under ” the genetic heritage” box in Boyd's OODA loop.

    Wonder what Chet Richards would think of that ?

  5. Mark,

    I agree completely. I think as long as one believes in a “human nature,” it's a given.

    Genetic heritage is a constantly changing process that constantly works with culture, memories, analysis/synthesis, and new information to create Orientation. This is what I was getting at in Section V of “The Magic Cloud,” and what Boyd, Richards, and others are getting at in their representation of OODA as well [2].

    However, while genetics can give weight to certain behaviors, it is just one of many sub-processes under Orientation. As Dr. Kurzban said, “There is no evolutionary reason for anything. There are evolutionary and environmental reasons for everything.” Genetics operates in the context of the magically cloudy process known of reality.

    An example of this is the famous “Bobo Doll” experiment in educational psychology. [3] When young children, of any sex, see a model attack a doll, they become much more likely to attack the doll as well. However, the ways they attack the doll depends on their prior experience: young boys will innovate by telling the doll that they will kill it, young girls will attack the doll with smaller toys, etc.

    The one behavior (a child attacking the doll) depends on genetics (the genetic heritage makes emulating violence very likely, play-use of tools like smaller dolls as weapons), culture (I bet Western boys are far less likely to behead dolls than middle-eastern boys, though gunviolence is just as deadly) prior experience (boys giving threatening speeches like in movies), and analysis/syntehsis (children tying these behaviors together to create novel violence)


  6. Mark,
    I think there has long been good consensus on the complementary role of nature and nurture in human life. But I am still wondering at what exactly it is that evolves in the “evolutionary psychology” of Dr. Kurzban. By analogy, we have a definite answer to this question in the case of “evolutionary biology” which is an accepted science, not poetry. In this science, what evolves is the genome. It is our DNA that is immortal, or at least capable of surviving the organism it the blueprint and factory for. But what of “psychological organisms” — ideas. Are there definite scientific laws that govern their evolution and passage through space and time? Take the MEME of SUICIDE, which is a very strange evolutionary survivor –as its success in life is to kill its host, yet as an IDEA it has survived all its successes! BUT, there is no rigorous science like the biochemistry of DNA and the shuffled deck of sex to describe how such ideas as Liberty and Democracy and War and Peace survive and reproduce from one generation of brains to another and how they evolve. There is a lot of hand waving naturally.

    Of course I'm not being argumentative — just theatrical — because I too enjoy the show at tdaxp. Thanks to the host.

  7. Riza,

    Dr. Kurzban focused on the evolution of genes.

    So for example, suicide would be a genetically evolved trait to increase the spread of ones genes. Perhaps individuals who commit suicide have more successful offpsring than if they didn't: think of all the resources a mentally ill person might use if they had to be cared for.

    Likewise, “liberty,” “war,” etc may be memes, but they are here because of genetics. All groups want to see free-riders punished, and male-groups especially want to organize for competition against potential competitors. If “liberty” is a form of cooperation which is more productive — if it is a more efficient tool for this evolutionary drive — it will naturally spread.

    However, he repeated praised Dawkins, so it would be interesting to have him go into his thoughts on memetics in some detail.

    He actually used the phrase “of course, this is hand-waving” at a few points, to let us know when the data wasn't as good as other places. Dr. Kurzban is a top-notch scientist.

    Thanks for the kind words, btw 🙂

  8. “So for example, suicide would be a genetically evolved trait to increase the spread of ones genes. Perhaps individuals who commit suicide have more successful offpsring than if they didn't: think of all the resources a mentally ill person might use if they had to be cared for.”

    I suspect that it's another thing, or a few things.

    Similar to your idea, a suicide of a mentally ill person cleans up the system. Not only do others not need to waste resources caring for such a person, but that person is no longer around to threaten their siblings, family members, neighbors. Plus, the suicide is no longer using resources himself. Offspring no longer need to compete with the parent for resources if the parent commits suicide — but, also, mentally ill offspring leave the stage and other offspring can recieved more focused attention (care-giving) from the parent. (Different paths to success via suicide.)

    Secondly, on the issue of offspring, I've noticed that many children who lose parents at an early age tend to mature a bit faster if they don't have mom and pop to always look after them. They learn to take care of themselves.

  9. >>Secondly, on the issue of offspring, I've noticed that many children who lose parents at an early age tend to mature a bit faster if they don't have mom and pop to always look after them. They learn to take care of themselves.

    In relevence to this, I would like to put in a quote from the book Origins of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton pg.115

    “Several investigators have found the incidence rates of parental losses than what holds true for the rest of the population. Thus, one ambitious study of 699 eminent figures of world history discovered that 61% lost a parent before age 31, 52% before 26 and 45% before 21. Another study of 301 geniuses found that over one-fifth were plagued by orphanhood A follow-up investigation, also based on famous people from all area of accomplishment, discovered that nearly one-third had lost their fathers early on.”

    Now, this doesn't account for suicide versus natural death, but it does pose an interesting situation, and also calls to mind the question of nature vs. nuture.

  10. Excellent point, Biz.

    When Dr. Hibbing gave a lecture on evolutionary politics a while ago, he looked at how correlated “trauamatic life events” were too suicide. The answer was very slightly.

    However, then he looked at when corrected for certain genetic populations. (I cannot remember the details of this). Suddenly the “very slight” correlation was split into one genetic population whose propensity for suicide did not increase, another whose increased slightly, and another whose skyrocketed.

    Is the answer nature or nurture? Yes.

    I'll be taking a human creativity and expertise seminar next semester, so perhaps I will know more then 🙂

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