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Myths of Evolution (3): Only the Strong Survive

Raja Only the strong survive? Tell that to the dinosaurs. The rajasaurus pictured here lived at the very end of the Cretaceous period and despite its power, it and dozens of other carnivorous therapods were destined for extinction.

The idea that strength is the most prevalent survival trait is not even remotely based upon scientific observations, and draws primarily from people's beliefs about competition. But even accepting the rather limited view that competition is the sole aspect worth focusing upon (mistaking ubiquity for quintessence), strength is just one of many competitive advantages that can help a species survive (or indeed, an individual succeed).

The mythology behind the idea that “only the strong survive” relates not so much to biology, but rather to sociological metaphysics. The idea is associated with social Darwinism, which represents a range of different ideologies with very little in common beyond the belief in competition as the driving force in cultural evolution. The term is quite misleading, as it refers to many things which were formulated before Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, including the ideas of the 18th century clergyman Thomas Malthus, as well as those of Darwin's cousin Francis Galton.

The trouble with social Darwinism is that it is entirely metaphysical – there is nothing testable in the idea of the primacy of competition, and it has lamentably been used to fuel all manner of abhorrent ideologies such as imperialism and racial supremacy. As we saw in the previous myth of evolution, luck has just as great a role in influencing biological evolution as strict competition, and the same is likely true in the social realm. Furthermore, it is readily apparent that even recognising numerous aspects of competition in society doesn't preclude a parallel recognition of the benefits of co-operation: if companies compete in the national marketplace, and nations compete in the international marketplace, it is important to remember that both the company and the nation represent examples of widespread co-operation. If this were not the case, all trade would be between individuals.

Returning to biology, and accepting the simplification briefly, we might say that the strongest (i.e. deadliest) species generally become top predator within a particular ecology – but survival for apex predators is extremely precarious. Animals in such a position depend upon the robustness of the entire food web they are embedded within for their survival. A fox may be stronger than a rabbit (in terms of the capacity to cause harm), but if something threatens the survival of the rabbit, the fox is equally threatened: predators (which we tend to think of as being “strongest”) inherit vulnerability from the species they prey upon when ecological equilibrium is lost. Rather than generating survival advantage, they actually suffer extreme disadvantages in survival during times of crisis, precisely because they are dependent upon the success of their prey species. Few predator species rack up more than a few tens of millions of years at the top before becoming extinct.

If you want to pick out in the abstract the trait most suited to long-term survival of a species (and even more so for a chain of successive species), it is not strength but adaptability. The bigger and stronger you are, the fossil record attests, the harder you fall. At the end of the reign of the dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago, it was the tiny yet adaptable mammals that gained the edge (roughly 10 of the 15 mammal families at the end of the Cretaceous survived), along with some of the smaller, more adaptable therapod dinosaurs, which diversified into modern birds. Being strong only gets you as far as the next cataclysm: being adaptable is a far safer long-term strategy.

Alternative myth: Survival of the Adaptable

Next Week: Myth #3: The Selfish Gene

Games Posts Round-up

I was going to be putting up a special post on ihobo today,  but because of the internet outage I have bumped it to next week. Instead, here's a round up of some recent games content on my blogs:

  • Last week, I posted this piece about recent research confirming that player's don't need violence in their videogames, and that different players want different things (an ongoing theme in my games research). Short quote: "Through two online surveys and four experimental studies, the researchers showed that people stayed glued to games mainly for the feelings of challenge and autonomy they experience while playing."
  • Today, I've posted some links to Georgios Yannakakis' work on adapting for player satisfaction. This approach - of dynamically adjusting games for player satisfaction - has a lot of potential, although it is still in its infancy.
  • Also, over on The Minigame Court, I've posted the rules for two new minigames for the rules lawyers (you know who you are!) to discuss. The minigames are called Superlative! and Prognosticate, and are played in parallel. I'll be launching them soon, once there's been a chance for a shakedown of the rules.
  • Finally, David Nett has asked me to plug his web-series comedy, GOLD (subtitled The Web Series that Does Double Damage), about professional role-playing gamers. Here's the blurb: "GOLD follows the American and British Goblins & Gold RPG teams as  they prepare for the World Role Playing Games Championships... a comic look at the American portrayal of sports in  television and film, and a loving tribute to the wonderful world of  traditional, pen-and-paper style role playing games." I rarely watch online videos, so I'm passing this on "sight unseen".

Have fun!

Catch Up

The technical fault with my internet access has now been fixed, but as a result of the disruption I have postponed this week's posts until next week (although the serial will run on Thursday as usual). I will get to your comments as soon as is humanly possible - thanks for your patience!

Myths of Evolution (2): The Ladder of Progress

Haeckel tree We are all familiar with the iconography of the “march of progress”, epitomised by the line of apes evolving into (for some reason) a white business man, but as Stephen Jay Gould has criticised, this iconography erroneously equates evolution with progress – a mistake compounded repeatedly by science fiction, which forever makes strange claims such as finding “more evolved” life that offers a “window into our evolutionary future”. The myth here is that evolution equates to progress, an error inherited from Darwin's contemporary Herbert Spencer, who was using the word 'evolution' to support his metaphysical belief in universal progress. Darwin purposefully avoided using the term 'evolution' (preferring “descent with modification”) because of the risk of this misunderstanding.

Gould suggests that drawing a putative line of ancestors tells the wrong story about evolution. “Diversification and stability, the two principal themes of natural history are entirely suppressed,” he writes in Ladders and Cones: Constraining Evolution by Canonical Icons, “the tiny, parochial pathway leading to humans stands as a surrogate for the entire history of life.” He furthers his criticism by examining sequences of paintings intended to show the progress of life on Earth – but which cease to show invertebrates as soon as the fishes arrive on the scene. But of course, 98% of species on our planet are invertebrates – they didn't go away just because more complex life arrived. He bemoaned this state of affairs, exclaiming “I know no other subject so distorted by canonical icons.”

The theme of progress also appears in another icon used to express ideas about evolution: the cone of diversity. This is a less well known image, but it occurs often in textbooks on evolution which show the “tree of life” as proceeding from a single trunk (the common ancestor) and then expanding into more diverse forms as time progresses. Gould notes that while the horizontal axis represents the variation in forms (diversity), the vertical axis of this model is supposed to represent time – but instead tends to be used to represent some notion of anatomical progress.

Consider Ernst Haeckel “pedigree of man” (pictured above), which has man at the pinnacle of the tree, surrounded by diverse mammal groups, with more “primitive” life lower in the branches. Gould observes that Haeckel has fallen into the trap of believing that the vertical axis can show progress, while the horizontal spread shows diversity – so to fit the implied iconography of a cone of diversity, Haeckel takes mammals – a small group of 4,000 species – and makes fine distinctions into whales, carnivores, primates etc., while insects – representing almost a million species – must occupy a single unbranched twig (about halfway down on the left) because as more “primitive” life they have to be fitted into a lower level.

Gould suggested that rather than a tree of life, the fossil record rather suggests a bushier “plant” iconography. He offered an alternative diagram showing a massive spread of diversity a short distance up the trunk (representing the “Cambrian explosion”, when multi-cellular life appeared in myriad forms in the blink of a geological eye), with just a couple of the many stems depicted continuing on to the present, splitting into small branches on the way. He referred to this as an “icon of a grass field with most stems mowed and just a few flowering profusely”. Gould's models, of which the most famous is punctuated equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), stress the role of contingency – luck, if you will – in the development of life. “All our canonical icons are based upon the opposite notion of progress and predictability,” he accuses. Of course, Gould's icon embeds his preferred mythology of evolution, but it is nonetheless prudent to appreciate his perspective in this regard if we are to move beyond the myths of progress.

Instead of thinking of a ladder of progress – which tricks people into imagining the process can be projected forward, when in fact it can only be selectively represented from the past – I suggest we could gainfully consider our evolutionary heritage in terms of a chain of inheritance, an anchor to the past from which we gain our biological gifts. What comes in the future depends upon the conditions that will come – and this can never be predicted – but embedded within all life are aspects of the species that came before, a sequence of connection that goes back even to the single-celled organisms that for two thirds of the history of our planet were the only life to be found on our planet.

Alternative myth: Chain of Inheritance

Next Week: Myth #2: Only the Strong Survive

Gifts, Tips & Bribes

F_bribery When money or goods are given away, it could be seen as a gift, a tip or a bribe, depending upon the circumstances. We think of a bribe as corruption, but gifts and tips as socially acceptable – but are these lines so easily drawn?

Recently, I have come to wonder about the distinctions between gifts and bribes. If I send one of my books to a potential client, that's a business gift. If I give money to a waitress after the meal, it's a tip. If I give money to the Maître d' to get seated, it's a bribe. But in all three cases, I am giving something to someone else with either the expectation of receiving future benefit (the business gift and the seating bribe) or in return for prior benefit (the waitress' tip). Furthermore, even the distinction of the tip is vague: since custom expects the serving staff to receive a tip (in many countries, at least) it is almost as if I have retroactively given a gift or bribe that I retained the option to withdraw in the event of poor service. In this light, the tip may seem worse than a bribe!

This is tricky ethical ground, and the problems are not easily dismissed. On the one hand, the blurring between these kinds of transactions represents genuine ambiguity (and varies enormously from culture to culture). On the other hand, it is easy to find oneself arguing that corruption is socially normal. If there are lines to be drawn, it is not clear where they lie, but if a line is not drawn where does that leave us?

The US Judge John Noonan in his book Bribes notes that “the Greeks did not have a word for bribes because all gifts are bribes. All gifts are given by way of reciprocation for favours past or to come.” Accepting this, he then suggests that a bribe can be distinguished from a gift in terms of the size and the secrecy involved – if it is given in secret, it's a bribe, or if the size of the gift exceeds the norm it is a bribe. (Charitable donations, however, where no reciprocation is expected, can be both secret and huge). An alternative approach comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which has composed an acronym for GIFT: Genuine (offered in appreciation for legitimate functions without encouragement), Independent (no effect on future functioning), Free (without obligations) and Transparent (declared openly).

But both of these approaches seem to fail in the case of campaign contributions (especially in the US where these can be very large in size). Such donations to a campaign are done openly, thus dodging Noonan's first complaint, and OECD's fourth, but to expect that such donations are given without obligation or expectation of future effect is naïve: the wealthy elites give campaign contributions precisely because they are expecting the politician to take a particular stance. The contribution might not have been intended to influence the politician's position (because their position is already where the donor wishes it to be) but to suggest this arrangement is free of obligation misses the political realities of campaigning. The politician's obligation is precisely to hold their position. (I am glossing over the highly likely situation that the politician doctors their political position in order to ensure the greatest campaign contributions).

A great deal of attention to this subject has been paid by people in India, where gifts and bribes are far more prevalent than in the West. Nepalese writer Narayan Manandhar suggests that the issue can be seen as a continuum from extortion to gifts. “Bribe becomes extortion when it is demand driven,” he writes. “If a medical doctor asks for a bribe inside an operation theatre or an emergency room, it is clearly a matter of extortion.” Whereas a bribe can be considered a gift when it is supply driven. The gift entreats, but does not demand action. “Gift does not entail a situation of reciprocity - quid pro quo situation. Bribes are demanding. Failure to perform after taking bribe could invite negative reciprocity, i.e., retaliation.”

The award-winning poet, painter and photographer Pritish Nandy takes a different tack, admitting that gifts are “nothing but bribes in another guise.” He suggests: “The value's not the issue; the purpose is. Most gifts are meant to seduce, impress, persuade or make friends with people we need something from.” But he does not entirely condemn this state of affairs, saying: 

Now we all know that bribery is an awful thing. It brings us a bad name and compromises our politics. But the question is: Can we stop it? I don t think so. For bribery is a way of life. In an imperfect economy like ours, bribery - despite its social stigma - actually achieves the impossible. It redistributes wealth. It ensures efficiency, understanding, sometimes even social justice.

In a bold move, Nandy places the blame for corruption upon free market economics:

When you install a free economy, you make a choice. This choice entails moral compromises. The most important being the fact that you no more take responsibility for the poor and the weak. You are driven only by market forces. In such an economy, corruption is inevitable. For money moves by the compulsions of profit, not ethics. Once you have made such a choice, it is silly to pose like King Canute and imagine that you can roll back the waves of corruption and crime.

These problems are intensified by cultural variation. In many African countries, prompt attention from officials presumes a bribe so universally that it is effectively a cost of business. The same is true in many former Soviet nations: try getting into Ukraine without bribing the border guards. Many South American nations have similar issues. According to a paper in the Journal of Third World Studies, South Koreans give gifts to attract the attention of people who could be influential for their business – and these gifts are often cash. Yet this is often seen as ethical behaviour because it is the cultural norm. A massive grey area results where determining what is a bribe depends more on Noonan's second condition – how the size of the gift compares to the norm.

Between these many different positions, certain conclusions can be drawn with confidence. Firstly, whether we are talking about gifts, tips or bribes, there is open acknowledgement that money and goods changes hands in return for attention or influence and that not all such exchanges are corrupt. Secondly, what is acceptable depends in part upon social norms, and varies from culture to culture: there is no absolute approach to delineating corrupt practices in this regard. Thirdly, while the expectation of effectiveness does not make a bribe corrupt, the demand of outcome coupled with a veil of secrecy which conceals that demand crosses into extortion, and hence corruption.

What of Pritish Nandy's accusation that free market economics guarantees corruption? This claim seems reasonable, but it is hard to validate. Was corruption less common in Russia under Communism? How would we make a fair comparison? Is the issue of regulation of the marketplace really the distinguishing factor here? More to the point, even if this claim were verified, what economic model would not open the door to corrupt practices? It is not just the distribution of wealth that helps generate the circumstances amenable to bribery, but also the distribution of power, and neither of these issues seem pragmatically soluble.

The exchange of gifts, bribes or tips constitute an essential part of all cultures, and as such the acquisition of influence and power and the possession of wealth go hand in hand. Those who have the money necessarily have the influence, and this situation is very unlikely to change. The arguable tragedy of this state of affairs is that those living in extreme poverty lack any means of escaping it, for without wealth they necessarily lack influence. Even democratic influence can be lost, since the news sources which allow individuals to make their decisions are controlled by the wealthy who consequently have the capacity to dictate which stories are told, and how they are spun. Small wonder the disenfranchised turn to crime. This is not a problem resolved by escalating law enforcement: perhaps, by virtue of tax-funded social safety nets, the poor must be bribed into innocence?

Lord Acton, writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Perhaps we should focus our attention not upon resolving problems of corruption in the form of petty bribery, but upon resolving (from culture to culture) the standards of behaviour to which we will hold our officials, elected and appointed. When we lose our sense of outrage at the abuse of power, we tacitly approve of corruption and unseat trust as the basis of governance, allowing extortion and intimidation to become the mechanisms of leadership.

How Many Players?

One of my favourite bloggers, Yehuda, is telling a fairly tall tale on the About page of his new multi-author blog Purple Pawn, which covers board games, card games, tabletop RPGs, trading card games and all other non-digital gaming.

Hi Yehuda,
There's no way for me to add a comment to your About page on Purple Pawn, so in the spirit of my attempt to use Fridays to improve communication between blogs (somehow!) I have decided to write my commentary here.

The About page on your excellent new board games blog makes the following claim:
While a few million people play video games, several billion people play tabletop games every single day: board games, card games, vintage games, role-playing games, collectible card games, war games, miniatures.
Biased much? :)
Firstly, the number of people who play videogames is a few hundred million, not a few million. And if you include video gambling, which you could, it goes up even further.
As for the several billion you contend who play tabletop games, you are of course choosing to omit the fact that 99% of these play classic board and card games. The collected audience for role-playing games, collectible card games, war games and miniatures is under ten million (and roughly half of the sales to this audience appear to come from just one game: Magic: The Gathering). That said, the estimate of the number of people who have played role-playing games is 20 million (based solely on Dungeons & Dragons since nothing else comes close) but this doesn't reflect the current size of the market for tabletop RPGs, which genuinally is "a few million" players.
But I think perhaps that you know all this, and are being deliberately pugnacious. :)
Perhaps you should revise your statement to admit that the audience for videogames is in the hundreds of million scale, and not just the millions. But if you choose otherwise, well, it's your blog, you can spin the data however you want to!
Hope all is well,