Evolution of Social Norms via Network Science and Evolutionary Game Theory 1

At the end of Pinker’s “Decline of Violence” talk last week he said that the evolution of social norms was an exciting area of inquiry.  If we accept Pinker’s data, but don’t feel satisfied by the causal mechanisms he speculates about (i.e. Pacification, etc.), it does seem like a logical next step to dig more fully into social norms.  Some of the researchers that he mentioned were: Nicolas ChristakisDuncan WattsJames Fowler, and Michael Macey.

Now I have to admit that I have a bias toward new ideas that can be easily attached to my existing conceptual framework.  (Arguably we all do and no one could learn anything new without attaching it to existing knowledge but this post isn’t about constructivism.)  It’s especially satisfying when new concepts resonate with remote structures elsewhere in the idea tree.

I read Christaki’s Connected when it first came out and it strongly influenced my thinking on human behavior.  I do plan on reviewing the content, but it basically explores the idea that human behavior is partially a network phenomenon.  This seems obvious and uninteresting until you drill down into some of the consequences.  The book shows that you have a higher chance of gaining weight if there are overweight people in your social network with up to three degrees of separation.  Yep, better start keeping track of your  friends’ friends’ friends.  Don’t worry, this tool I saw on Melanie Swan’s blog can make it easier to map at least your LinkedIn network.

Now there was some controversy around the models used in this book.  I didn’t fully examine them and wouldn’t be able to independently evaluate the statistics anyway.  But I guess Harvard has to defend it’s own and bunch of statisticians from the old alma mater jumped to his defense.  I admit that I’m biased and I like the idea.  For the sake of argument, let’s agree that network behavior contagion is a thing. (If any statistics guru out there can show there exists a laymen’s explanation of why we should absolutely reject these findings, please do.)

Wait, sorry, I don’t have an argument yet.  But Christakis is just really cool.  In this video he talks about how he got into social network science and gives the example of caregivers getting sick from exhaustion and that effecting their other family members.  In a sense, he saw a non-biological contagion of illness.  My girlfriend and I experienced this first hand when her sister died of cancer so I deeply empathize with folks in that example.

On a brighter note,  Christakis gets into topology and nematode neuron mapping in the second half of the video.  This was the stuff we were talking about at the Singularity Summit with Paul Bohm this year.  See?  Christakis is cool.

But Pinker’s “Decline of Violence” thesis must also be supported by evolutionary population dynamics somehow, right?  So I pinged my awesome CogSci book club friend Ruchira Datta, and she recommended the following books for me to explore:


Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution

I recall that there was a discussion about evolutionary game theory strategies at one of these meetups and it was suggested that there are population equilibria in which a certain percentage of “enforcer” agents (who punish defectors without regard to self-benefit) serve to protect a cooperative majority of nice, contrite, tit-for-tat agents.  So this is why we need tough conservatives around to protect all the cooperating liberals.

I brought this up at the LessWrong meetup tonight and someone objected that this might require group selection or some other troubling theory.  I wonder if it couldn’t be explained more along co-evolutionary lines similar to pollinators and flowering plants.

But anyway, where I’m trying to go with this is that we can take the above scenario and start to examine ways in which the ratios of cooperators and defectors change.  Then we somehow plug that into the whole social network science thing and we will have an awesome blog post or something.  (But I have a bunch more reading to do first.)

Stephen Pinker at the Long Now

I went to see Pinker’s talk at the Long Now this evening.  He is promoting his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” in which he proposes that many forms of violence have declined over time.  His previous TED talk on this topic caused “Sex at Dawn” author Christopher Ryan to criticize his characterization of hunter gatherer society as violent.  But Pinker’s talk this evening focused mostly on the last 500 years and stayed away from prehistoric man.

I liked it when Pinker pointed out that when people say that the 20th century was the most violent in history, they never mention any other centuries to compare it to.  He had data that showed that even World War II was only the 9th most deadly event in human history on a per capita basis.  I do agree with his view that per capita violence is the only intelligent way to measure it.

When evaluating causes of this great decline in violence, Pinker asserts that literacy played a greater role than wealth. English wealth was fairly flat during a great decline in murder and capital punishment, but efficiency of book production and literacy greatly increased.  He posits that reading allows us to be in the mind of others to some extent and naturally increases empathy.  It also supposedly decreases ignorance and superstition which may lead to violence.

Another cause of this decrease is alleged to be cosmopolitanism.  As humans rub shoulders with one another in cities, it forces them to share ideas and develop some tolerance of others.  Our allegiances expand outward from family and tribe to include our entire nationstate and on to other races, sexes, and children.

Pinker says that there is a propensity for genocidal totalitarians to push anti-city, back to nature ideologies.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and even Hitler’s Lebensraum all focused on pushing urban populations into rural areas.  Stewart Brand commented on the fact that many of his contemporaries had followed suit and went out into the countryside only to become bored and returning to the cities.  Brand regrets that more of his friends don’t acknowledge the failure of this experiment.

Several times during the closing discussion with Brand, Pinker said that he was excited by social network science.  He mentioned the study of how social norms arise from individuals exchanging ideas explored in the work of Nicolas Christakis, Duncan Watts, James Fowler, Michael Macey.  I was deeply impressed by Connected by Christakis, so I will definitely be checking out these other researchers as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this talk.  I sense that Pinker is trying to defend the narrative of progress and the virtues of Western Civilization that are so maligned in this post-modernist era.  More power to him.