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 Christakis, Duncan Watts, James 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.)