Monday, June 21, 2010

Why do so many people think they know things they obviously don't?

The NYTimes has started a blog series on this topic, titled: "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong but You'll Never Know What It Is (Part 1): A ludicrously botched bank robbery leads to the question, Can you be too incompetent to understand just how incompetent you are?"

I said:

350 comments so far--many from obviously intelligent people--yet not one (nor the blog authors) seem to realize the four biological facts that are crucial to this issue:

1. evolution is totally blind. It's a mechanism, not a purpose.

2. evolution does not select for the fittest individual. It selects for the most reproductively successful GENE POOL.

3. we evolved to succeed as hunter/gatherers in the Kenyan highlands, with minor adaptations to other hunting-gathering environments.

On the macro level, however, we stopped evolving for the most part once we learned how to evolve our environment to suit ourselves, instead of vice-versa.

So we're still optimized to be hunter/gatherers living in tribes of a few dozen people (i.e. no more than can find food in one place in one day). Biologically speaking, you could say that modern society blindsides our inner nomadic forager every day.

4. the human race has a high degree of genetic plasticity--that is, we breed every whichway, like dogs, and unlike cats. Meaning that nature keeps trying stuff.

This probably stems from our evolving during unstable circumstances, forcing us to be highly adaptable, not just as individuals, but, evolutionarily speaking, not \"knowing\" just what's going to work. In highly stable circumstances evolution produces highly specialized life forms. Think koalas, which only eat one thing and have the brains of a turnip.

So--sociobiologically, the bell-shaped intelligence curve stems from the fact that (1) most people have enough intelligence to learn what to eat, how to acquire stuff to eat, how to avoid what wants to eat or kill you, in a particular environment; and (2) a tribe can't have all chiefs and no indians.

But this blog wasn't about the prevalence of stupidity. Nor is it really about ignorance of ignorance. It's about unwarranted confidence.

To understand why we have that, consider this situation: it's 100,000 years ago. Your band of a few dozen people is walking through the veldt. You don't even know about bows and arrows--all you have is rocks and clubs. Maybe some spears--sharpened sticks, really. Now here comes a lion.

If everyone were completely rational and only lived for self-advantage, the alpha male would toss the lion babies and children until it was satiated and went away. Or everyone would try to hide behind everyone else, with the strongest pushing the weakest in front of them--with similar results.

But they weren't rational. The alpha male would be full of rage at the lion trying to take his possessions--the other tribe members--and he'd also be full of self-sacrificing protective urges for his own females and his children. And he and his beta males would stand shoulder to shoulder confronting the lion with their rocks and clubs etc.

And within each of they psyches they'd figure the lion may get the guy beside me but he won't get me. I'll succeed. I'll pull this off. Because...well, because I'm ME.

That's where this all comes from, and it's found to varying degrees in most of us, both smart and stupid. It's just more easily seen in the hapless American Idol loo-hooser contestants. But the BP CEO wanting his life back or Bernie Madoff have this same trait.

Those of us who are somewhat self-aware can realize the power of this build-in heuristic in our minds, and try to compensate for it. But it's really, really hard.

Worth trying, though. I wish everyone the best of luck in trying to perceive reality accurately in the midst of the hormonal hurricane that is the human mind.

And of course, just because you may understand the origins of some aspect of human behavior--such as overconfidence--doesn't free you from its grip. It just makes you more morally culpable. "Responsibility" factors into response-ability, after all.

So those who see sociobiology as excuse-making need not fear. It's anything but.

OTOH if you think understanding how we came to be what we are is irrelevant--well, the best way to be controlled by the adaptive heuristics buried in our DNA is to deny their existence. Plus, one of the commonest forms of overconfidence is the persistent human belief that we invented ourselves, free of any kind influence by society, family, language, propaganda...and biological heritage.


Alex said...


As an avid follower and student majoring in evolutionary biology, I feel the need to point out that to some extent your #3 point on this article is incorrect. It is indeed true that a large and critical part of our psychological makeup was established during our hunter-gatherer days and before, when we were simply considered omnivorous proto-humans. However, we as a species have changed in the thousands of years since then. Not only do we have myriad gene variations indicative of lifestyle changes in populations of humans (CF gene protects from typhoid or typhus, can't remember which, but that's why it's primarily European; sickle cell protects against malaria, which is why it's a tropical variant found primarily in Africa and India; lactose tolerance in adults is found in cultures that have herded cattle at some point), we have a glaring "epidemic" (as the Normies put it) of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Argueably the vast majority of us would have died or failed to breed in a hunter-gatherer society. In our society, so dependent on scientists and engineers like Drs. Temple Grandin and Albert Einstein (to name but two famous ASD examples), not only do we survive but breed enough to scare people with traditional "social" skills based on the premise that lying, in its many forms and to its many victims, is not merely somehow advantageous but morally okay as long as you do it to yourself as well. When viewed somewhat dispassionately, it is not unreasonable to see that a significant reduction in the sharing of lies, falsehoods, and other deliberate if unconcious misunderstandings would strengthen human social networks and improve standards of living for the species as a whole by improving productivity. In addition, individuals would become stronger from facing their owns weaknesses, if not learning to overcome them then at least knowing when to expect them to be a problem. Thus one could argue that, at least to this limited extent, segments of the human population are evolving biopsychologically away from the hunter-gatherer state. At this point I would like to welcome comments from students/teachers of anthropology, evolutionary biology & genetics, sociology, and psychology. I would also like to state that my bias is Asperger's Syndrome, just as the bias of many readers of this will be neurotypical if generally well-educated.

-Alexandria Bradley
Undergrad; Biology-Ecology, Evolution, & Behavior; UT Austin

Ehkzu said...

Alex, that's why I said "On the macro level, however, we stopped evolving for the most part."

It has been noted that the human race is evolving rapidly at the micro level, simply due to our vast numbers.

After all, 80K years ago there may have been less than 2K breeding females. Now there are 3B.

By "macro," however, I was differentiating between things that would change our mental makeup or gross physical makeup non-superficially, and "micro"-level adaptations--such as the malaria-resistant gene that confers sickle-cell anemia when you get two of them, or, say, the latitude-mediated change in melanin that balances our need for protection from solar radiation with our need to synthesize Vitamin D, which requires solar radiation.

One of the more interesting micro-level adaptions led to a TB outbreak in Canada some decades ago, BTW. Turns out Eskimos metabolize one common-at-the-time TB drug differently than whites do.

And for the lactose tolerance bit you cited, I'd prefer to say it happened with people who drank cattle milk, since Asians kept large numbers of cattle as agricultural work animals, only without drinking their milk.

And at the macro level--particularly in rich countries--you could say that we're anti-evolving--that is, traits which would formerly prevent someone from breeding, or even reaching breeding age, often no longer apply.

If anything, the most demonstrably successful specimens tend to have fewer offspring, relatively speaking.

Hence the '80s art-rock band's name "Devo."

I know about the ASD stuff personally. One of my sisters-in-law married a guy with ADHD and proceeded to have 7 children, of which 5 clearly have various flavors of ASD, mostly severe enough to have precluded breeding in times of yore.

But even though that does affect mental makeup, I'm inclined to subsume that under the general breakdown of macro evolution rather than seeing any kind of consistent natural selection in favor of such traits.

People say "I want to marry someone who looks like Angelina Jolie," or who is "nice, with a sense of humor, and loves long walks on the beach," not "someone with ASD."

Cultural note on ASD: In 1957 the Lil Abner comic strip of Al Capp introduced the Bald Iggle, whose gaze made people tell the truth. Capp did a whole graphic novel about the Bald Iggle, winding up with the FBI hunting them all down and exterminating them because all that truth-telling was destroying civilization. The Lil Abner strip ran from 1934-1977 and was a cultural icon, actually introducing words into the language that are still in use.

[editing note: break your thoughts into paragraphs. Much easier for others to read.]