From time to time, I find myself being asked what my political views are. Every time that happens, I get frustrated.
Therefore, I have decided to write this blog entry that states my position explicitly. It is rather long thanks to the possible inferential distance. Incidentally, it explains a great deal of my general outlook on life.
For those unwilling to read it whole, here’s the long story cut short:
Politics is a bunch of atavisms gone horribly wrong and stuck in a Nash Equilibrium.
I have a dream that one day all sentient beings will choose to cooperate.
Step 1: Evolution In A Nutshell
I sincerely hope that most of people who end up here do have a solid understanding of how evolution works. But just in case you do not, I will give an immensely simplified overview. It works in three easy steps:
- A new organism is conceived. It is similar in structure to its parent (or parents, in sexual reproduction), but may have some deviations. They may be random mutations and/or a result of genetic recombination.
- Depending on how well adapted this new organism is to its environment (which includes but is not limited to other organisms), this organism may or may not survive and breed.
- If it does survive to breed, go to step (1)
The problem with evolution is that it is ridiculously inefficient.
Suppose a beneficial mutation which conveys a fitness advantage of 3%: on average, bearers of this gene have 1.03 times as many children as non-bearers.
Spreading through a population of 100,000, such a gene would require an average of 768 generations to reach universality in the gene pool.
A population of 500,000 would require 875 generations.
So, for human evolution, thousands of years are but a blink of an eye. Genetically, we are mostly the same as we used to be hundreds of thousands of years ago. But not completely.
The Lactase Persistence is a good example of a recently evolved trait. Recently here is during the last 10,000 years, roughly after people adopted agriculture and started consuming animal milk more frequently.
More complex adaptations, like modern human behavior, take much longer to reach universality. The brain structure is very entangled, and changing one part independently usually breaks other things, resulting in a less fit organism.
Our brains have evolved in the ancestral environment, and may have been optimal then. But that was no less than 50,000, or maybe even five times as much, years ago. Things have changed, but the brains have not.
Step 2: The Flawed Hardware We Are Running On
Evolution has hardcoded a great deal of stuff into us. For instance, when you accidentally put your hand on something hot, you instantly jerk the endangered hand away, without consciously thinking about it. Because the organisms that did that, had more chances of keeping their hands intact, and, in turn, were more likely to breed than those who had their hands burned off.
Some ancestor of ours has ended up with a useful trait: whenever their organism was physically damaged, they received negative feedback. Namely, pain. Combined with the brain’s powerful pattern matching facilities, it made our ancestors avoid doing things that usually resulted in bodily damage, further increasing the genetic fitness. But all in all, it is still just a trigger that sometimes yields some useful results.
Some other times, it doesn’t. Skip ahead to our age. A person trips and makes an unsuccessful landing, which results in them getting badly injured. But instead of crawling to a phone and calling 911, they enter a pain shock, and, failing to help the situation, soon bleed to death.
Individual organisms are best thought of as adaptation-executors rather than as fitness-maximizers.
Possibly, the best illustration of this is the fact that humans have sex for pleasure. Back when there was no contraception, an orgasm usually resulted in offsprings. But it still happens when people use contraception, despite the fact that there will not be any actual breeding.
Lots of the stuff we do, we do because it used to give our ancestors a fitness advantage. As we see with sex, it may be not working now like it used to before. As we see with pain, the adaptations produced by evolution may be far from an optimal solution to a given problem.
So, given the above, it is quite obvious that our brains must have lots and lots of bugs… Or is it? Maybe I say that this is obvious because I already know that human brains are inherently flawed? Would I have predicted that, if I had not known about it? Because, you know, humans tend to say that they knew it all along, even if they didn’t.
The bottom line is that humans, unless they constantly struggle with their own hardware, are pretty irrational, and cannot be expected to exhibit optimal behavior.
Step 3: Nash Equilibrium
There is the concept of Group Selection in Evolutionary Biology that tries to describe how groups of organisms, instead of individual organisms, are subject to selection. It is supposed to make organisms evolve non-selfish adaptations.
Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters.
A great illustration of this is an experiment conducted by Michael J. Wade in 1976. He did a lab setup where insects were selected for low number of adults per population (enforced by the amount of food). Group Selectionists would expect the insects to restrain their breeding, but the result was quite different: the insects started eating eggs and larvae.
This situation is somewhat similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Here are the possible scenarios:
- All the insects restrain their breeding. Everyone is “happy”.
- All the insects restrain their breeding, except for one mutated specimen. The cheater is “happy”, and in the next generation, he has more offsprings. Which, in turn, breed a lot as well.
- None of the insects restrain their breeding. Nobody is “happy”, since there is nothing to eat… Oh, wait. My neighbor insect is a cheater who has lots of larvae. I’ll just go and eat them now!
They are, respectively, the “Both Prisoners Cooperate”, “One Cooperates, But The Other Defects” and “Both Prisoners Defect” scenarios of the classical dilemma.
The classical causal decision theory reasons thus: if the other player defects, you are better off defecting as well. If the other player cooperates, you are still better off defecting. If both players follow such reasoning, they end up in the worst possible scenario for both of them.
And this is what happens during natural selection. Evolution has no foresight, and it cannot make everyone cooperate, because the defectors leave more offsprings, who also defect.
Prisoner’s Dilemma is a special case of Nash Equilibrium. No single player can change their strategy, unless others do that as well. There are more advanced decision theories like the Timeless Decision Theory, which allow for optimal cooperative behaviors.
But the problem is that our brains have evolved long before people have even learned to count, let alone understood what Nash Equilibrium is and how to avoid it.
Step 4: Your Whole Life Is An Atavism
By this point you might start wondering what any of this has to do with politics. Well, it has everything to do with politics. Like I said, modern politics is a bunch of atavisms gone horribly wrong and stuck in a Nash Equilibrium.
People go funny in the head when talking about politics. The evolutionary reasons for this are so obvious as to be worth belaboring: In the ancestral environment, politics was a matter of life and death.
Evolution tries to maximize individual fitness, not the group fitness. Any altruistic traits we ended up with is actually because it helped us survive individually, or is just a side effect, like with Empathy that helps us better predict other people’s actions, but also gives us compassion.
Since the dawn in humanity, politics has been full of cognitive biases. Arguments are treated like soldiers. Pointing out a faulty argument that your side has come up with is like shooting your own soldier in the back. A big no-no. Accepting that the opposing side has made a good point is like treason. Also a big no-no.
These are not mere speculations and waving hands. It is absolutely real. A recent example is the Innovations Act in the United States. There was an amendment that in legal proceeding pertaining copyright issues, the losing side should cover all the legal expenses of the winning side. Democrats voted 174-18 in favor of it, while Republicans voted 25-195 against it. This issue has nothing to do with the ideology of either party, so why the drastic difference? Probably because it won’t do to show dissent within the party.
But that’s nothing compared to what happens in cross-country interactions. For historical reasons, there exist nations. For the reasons above, many people believe that their nation’s welfare is somehow inherently more important than that of others. That their ideals are the right ones, and the others are all wrong.
These beliefs of the general populace can be easily fueled by propaganda. Some jerk up high wants more power, and the next thing that happens is a Crusade. Some other jerk wants to exterminate the “infidels”, and you get a terrorist act. Yet another jerk wants even more power, and an army invades another country.
Because historically, everyone else acts selfishly. Because when the other player is sure to defect, you defect as well.
People suffer and die. What a mess.
But hey, we can do better than that. We know that nobody’s the villain of their story. We do know what the Nash Equilibrium is. We know how to work around it. We know what cognitive biases are. We know that two rational agents cannot agree to disagree.
I have a dream that one day all sentient beings will choose to cooperate.