Monday, May 30, 2011

Let them eat status

I am fascinated by this question: What portion of our evolutionary progress is driven by competition from other species, versus one's own species?

Clearly they're both important.  The peacock evolves to fly away from predators, but it also evolves a big showy tail to compete against other peacocks for the peahens' attention.  But often it's not so easy to separate out the forces.  I mean, why are we humans so smart?  Though it may seem like intelligence would be highly useful for outwitting predators, it's been theorized that our brains grew large primarily in competition to outwit each other, to navigate the complexities of human social interactions.

It's easy to look at the dominant civilization our intelligence has built, and conclude that intelligence confers a huge survival advantage over other animals.  But be careful!  Evolution happens largely at the level of the individual, not the collective.  And actually I think that historically the individual's return to intelligence must have been pretty low if we exclude its value in competing with other humans for relative status.  

The thing is, it takes much less intelligence to free-ride off of someone else's knowledge than to come up with it oneself.  The power we wield at any point in time is much more a function of the knowledge we've managed to accumulate as a society than our underlying super-smartness.  We're safe from lions because someone figured out how to make a spear, and now any dummy can copy the procedure.

Here's a simple model:  Imagine that at any point in our evolutionary path, we have some store of knowledge, and some baseline of intelligence that is able to put that knowledge to use.  If you're smarter, you add a little increment to the pot, which everyone subsequently gets to share.  Everyone levels up the same amount relative to the rest of the animals, but you also get additional esteem within human society for being such a smartypants.  

(According to this model, if you're a fan of modern society, then competition for relative status is something to be grateful for!  Without it, we'd have had considerably less reason to grow to our current state.)  

You might say: this model is too simple.  I mean, shouldn't intelligence also enable us to harness the store of knowledge more effectively?  Couldn't it be that once we have a big store of knowledge, being smarter confers a big advantage against the lions?

Sure.  The larger point, though, is this: we have considerably less incentive to be smart than we would if we internalized the full value to humanity of our smartness, a discrepancy which can be conveniently offset by our concerns for relative status.  If people are paid (in status or otherwise) by an amount commensurate with their additional value to society, we evolve as if we cared about social welfare.  It was not always the case that we had markets to handle that payment, and even today, status payments do a reasonable job of springing up whenever markets come up short.

Hmm, that's definitely not the original "larger point" I was planning to make, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Perhaps we will get back on the original course some other time.


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