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11 Jun 2022

Epigenetic cultural changes

Posted by jofr. No Comments

During the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe the Christian church split into two slightly different branches, the old Catholic church and the new Protestant one. This division was accompanied for decades by wars and bloodshed. Originally all of this – the violent conflict and the foundation of a new church – was unintended by Martin Luther, as Brad S. Gregory argues in his book “Rebel in the Ranks” (2018), but it was nevertheless a consequence of his work.

Protestantism is based on a new understanding of the same old holy text. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli created 500 years ago a new interpretation, not a new scripture. For Protestants the path to eternal salvation is different. They argue that the script alone matters (“Sola scriptura“). Protestants believe that individuals can be saved only by personal faith in Jesus (“Sola fide“) and the grace of God (“Sola gratia“). They dismiss the traditions of pilgrimages, the sale of indulgences to obtain forgiveness, worship of saints and prayers addressed to saints (“Solus Christus“).

The Catholic church holds on to established traditions which is supported by verses like 1. Corinthians 11:1-2, while the Protestant church abandons them and emphasize verses like 1. Corinthians 4:6. Catholics interpret verses like 1. Corinthians 3:13 as an indication for the existence of a purgatory while Protestants reject such an interpretation. The Catholic church uses Matthew 16:18 to argue that the Pope has ultimate authority while the Protestant church rejects it.

Thus both church branches use the same holy text, but a different interpretation of certain key parts. It is the interpretation that shapes significantly our worldview and determines the form of the religious organization. These differences can be considered as epigenetic variations in the expression of the same genetic code (in biology epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the genetic code or DNA sequence). A small number of different interpretations can have a large impact.


h/t to Ash Jogalekar for the Brad S. Gregory book references

  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, Penguin Books, 2005
  • Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Belknap Press, 2015
  • Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, HarperOne, 2018
  • Richard Rex, The Making of Martin Luther, Princeton University Press, 2019

11 Jun 2022

The Secret of Oracles

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Oracles were sacred places to the ancient Greeks. Examples are the oracles at Dodona and Delphi. An oracle was a place of communication where divine knowledge was magically transferred to humans. The process is known as divination. Why were oracles used in some cultures, like ancient Greece and ancient China, but not in others? First of all they are ancient. In ancient China oracle bones were alread used 3000 years ago in the Shang Dynasty. The characters carved on animal bones which were used for divination are the oldest known form of Chinese writing. The Oracle of Delphi is 3400 years old. Therefore they must have a fundamental purpose.

One theory how the oracle at Delphi worked is that the priestess spoke more or less nonsense in a feverish state caused by toxic vapors and hallucinogenic gases rising from a chasm in the rocks. This legend goes back to the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. If true, this would add an element of randomness which can also be found in the Chinese method of divination.

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has examined divination and has found that a typical feature of divination is “ostensive detachment”, which is “a demonstration that the diviners are not the authors of the statements they utter” (Boyer, 2020). The oracle of Delphi is no exception. As a National Geopgrahic article about Delphi says “people could only pose questions to the Pythia, the priestess, on the seventh day of each month [..] Pythia would go to the inner sanctum of the temple, the adytum. She would sit on a tripod, and Apollo would speak through her. Priests would stand near her and interpret her answers from the god.”

The last part is important: the anwser comes from god (i.e. in a sociological sense from the group) but it is also an interpretation of the priests. Interpretation which gives guidance in situations is a form of cultural gene expression as we have discussed earlier. The priests were able to make useful interpretations because temples were centers of knowledge where the knowledge of the time was collected in form of scripts and scrolls, or simply in form of recollected knowledge the priests had assembled over time. They got many visitors from all parts of the country and thus received “divine” knowledge from the whole collective group, which they could use in the interpretation process.

I think divination in oracles was therefore a kind of “on demand” gene expression to guide the behavior in challenging situations, as opposed to normal gene expression in religious assemblies at regular intervals in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. If a church or shabbath service is a gene expression, then an oracle reply is an “on demand” gene expression. Because there was no holy script in very ancient times which was readable for the general population, and no regular holy day in the week where priests would read the holy scripts in order to tell the people what to do, people needed a place where they could ask what to do in challenging times. They consulted the oracle to get guidance in difficult situations, when they needed information how and when to seed crops, what to do in case of family problems, how the weather will be, how to fight battles, if a war should be declared, or what the fate of the ruling family will be, and so on. In this sense oracles predated churches, synagogues, mosques and our mighty medieval cathredrals.


Pascal Boyer, “Why divination? Evolved psychology and strategic interaction in the production of truth”, in Current Anthropology, vol 61, no 1, 2020, p. 100-123

Hugo Mercier, Pascal Boyer, “Truth-making institutions: From divination, oaths, and ordeals to judicial torture and trial by jury”, Evolution and Human Behavior, 42(3) (2020) 259-267.

National Geographic:

Once sacred, the Oracle at Delphi was lost for a millennium. See how it was found.
Delphic Oracle’s Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors


Image of the scroll from Taylor Wilcox at Unslpash
Image of the temple from christian hardi on Pixabay

6 Jun 2022

The strange phenomenon of consciousness

Posted by jofr. 2 Comments

A recent discussion at the FRIAM list with Nicholas S. Thompson and others made me think about the strange phenomenon of consciousness again, the favorite topics of all retired professors (including none less than the discoverer of the DNA, Francis Crick). It is real, and yet it is not real. It is an existential insight, and yet it causes ultimate confusion. The biggest insight into the own existence seems to be linked to the largest confusion. Is the self a thought, an idea or a person? Can a thought be a person? Can my own thought be me? If we can understand our self, does it mean the fish is equal to the net that it catches (Ryle, 1949) ?

Gilbert Ryle, Daniel Dennett (1991) and Jay Garfield (2022) have argued that we do not have a self, at least no self in the sense of an actor in a Cartesian theater. And yet the self is the one subject which we recognize during moments of self-awareness and self-consciousness. How can we experience something which is not real? Consciousness of the own self is not only a fundamental insight, it is also a real experience. It is like an insight (I exist!) in confusion (who am I?) and belief (I think therefore I am!) in doubt (Is this me?).

Consciousness is one of the problems that perplexes people. It is not the only one, as Searle (1984) noticed, but it is a certainly an insight which causes perplexity the more we think about it. It causes perplexity like the magician which draws a rabbit out of his hat. We experience something real but know it can not be real. Do we exist or not? Sartre (1943) says yes, but we have to construct ourselves. Daniel Dennett thinks the self can at best be compared to a rainbow. He recently posted on Twitter a link to a nice article from Keith Frankish : perceiving a rainbow is a real experience of a colored arc, but also an illusion because there is of course no real physical arc at the place where we see it.

Maybe the illusion of the self works indeed in the same way? As whole persons who have bodies and brains we are real, just as raindrops in the sky are real. But when the billions of neurons start to sparkle in the light of conscious thoughts, the experience of a self emerges for a short time like a rainbow which emerges shortly from a million raindrops that bend the light towards the observer.

The paradox thing is that the confusing insight of self-awareness where we perceive an own self (although a thinking self does not exist) can lead ultimately to the construction of the self in form of a personality. I believe Sartre and Garfield are right when they say that we are able to construct ourselves. If we consider a person from a 3rd person point of view, then the personality of a person certainly determines its behavior. Everyone has a self in form of a character or personality. Even if it is illusionary or an unreachable ideal to be a certain type of person, such a type can be approximated through constant training and life-long learning. Our personalities can be considered as embedded abstract person types that we acquire and approximate in the course of time. In this sense we can say we have a self that guides our actions. And this abstract type is independent from us, since it could also be implemented in a sophisticated robot, android or AI in the future.


– Francis Crick, Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Scribner, 1994
– Jay L. Garfield, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self, Princeton University Press, 2022
– Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown and Co., 1991
– György Buzsáki, The Brain from Inside Out, Oxford University Press, 2019
– Gilbert Ryle, The concept of mind, University Of Chicago Press, 1949
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Routledge, 1943
– John Searle, Minds, Brain and Science, Harvard University Press, 1984

Photo by Guillermo Casales on Unsplash

31 May 2022

Anger as adaptation to demeaning offenses

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Anger can be destructive. In modern life and at work getting angry is normally avoided, for good reasons. It can be destructive and corrosive for social groups. Positive emotions like love are cherished, negative ones like anger are frowned upon. Yet both are rooted in our biological nature.

John Tooby and his wife Leda Cosmides who are known for their work in pioneering the field of evolutionary psychology [1] have argued that anger can have benefits too: anger in general has for selfish individuals like us the benefit of helping to remove obstacles that reduce the ability to reach our goals and therefore our fitness [2]. In a social context – and usually we are always in some kind of social group – it has the benefit to enhance our bargaining power. By showing our strength and threatening to inflict costs or withholding benefits anger allows cost effective bargaining for better treatment by our adversaries. Tooby and Cosmides call this the recalibrational theory of anger [3].

Anger is often triggered by demeaning offenses against oneself which happen behind our back, by secret intrigues that violate our status in the social hierarchy. Clearly mechanisms to eliminate socially demeaning offenses increase the fitness of social animals. By raising our voice anger draws the attention of the group to the adversary and helps to uncover secret intrigues. By showing our status or strength to others it reminds others of fair behavior. By making threats anger helps to ward off demeaning offenses against ourselves. It helps to bring unfair social behavior to light, just as moral outrage helps to uncover defection.

Thus as bad as bad feelings and negative emotions might be, bad feelings can be good for us too: fear helps to avoid dangers, disgust helps to expell dangerous substances, pain tells us to avoid movement in order to prevent further damage. And anger helps to reduce or eliminate socially demeaning offenses. Emotions have a purpose, and their purpose is to fullfill the primary directive of our genes. For biological organisms, animals and royal families the primary directive means “survive! and reproduce!”. Emotions are the control mechnanism used by the genes to control their survival vehicles.

Myisha Cherry even argues (Cherry, 2021) that anger does not deserve its bad reputation at all because it can help to reduce (racial) injustice, which would be a good thing. She says anti-racist anger could help to reduce racism. I am not sure if I agree, but the mechanism which triggers anger here is the same: a demeaning offense.


[1] Jerome H. Barkow, Ledea Cosmides, John Tooby (Eds.),
The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture
1992, Oxford University Press

[2] John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, Groups in Mind: The Coalitional
Roots of War and Morality (2010). Chapter 8 in “Human Morality and Sociality:
Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives” edited by Henrik Høgh-Olesen,
Palgrave MacMillan, 2010

[3] Aaron Sell, John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, Formidability and the logic of human anger,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) August 2009.

[4] Myisha Cherry, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, Oxford University Press, 2021

( Unsplash image of two angry bisons from Uriel Soberanes )

22 May 2022

Modeling democratic backsliding into Authoritarianism

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One of the most pressing political issue of our time is the rise of authoritarian populism and democratic backsliding in democratic societies (Norris & Inglehart, 2019). Authoritarian rulers, strongmen and self-proclaimed saviors destroy democracies (Ben-Ghiat, 2020) while populism is on the rise (Müller, 2016). Sarah Kendzior argued it can also happened in a democratic country like the USA (Kendzior, 2020). This is concerning because historically democracies have a tendency not to go to war with one another. More authoritarian systems means war becomes more likely.

On the other hand we see attempts in Eastern Europe of the people to overthrow their authoritarian goverments who fake elections and enrich themselves, especially in Ukraine and Belarus (Wilson, 2021). A political system can apparently develop in both directions: from democratic to authoritarian, as we witness in democratic backsliding, or from authoritarian to democratic. David Waldner and Ellen Lust (2018) argue that “despite a rich and diverse literature, we lack readily available theories to explain backsliding”.

So how do democracies backslide into authoritarian regimes? Can we model it? Robinson and Acemoglu argue in their book “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” (2012) that different social groups prefer different political institutions because of the way they allocate political power and obtain resources. This aspect alone results in interesting dynamics:

In an (aspiring) autocracy demagogues, corrupt oligarchs and wannabe autocrats who care only about their clan, tribe or family and who are involved in shady or corrupt business deals have clearly an incentive to weaken political institutions, to restrict freedom of speech and to manipulate elections to remain in power, because they have to fear independent courts, investigative journalism and free elections. If they stop doing it, they risk changes that might lead to an early end of their regime. Once an autocracy has been firmly established, the autocrat can no longer voted out of office. Elections can not be lost for the incumbent anymore. People living in it have therefore a strong incentive to avoid cricizing the autocratic ruler and his family (or in totalitarian systems his party) if they do not want to be imprisoned or killed.

Democrats in a democracy have an incentive to strengthen institutions to remain in power because independent courts, freedom of speech and free elections enable them to obtain power in democratic elections in the first place. Stronger political institutions in turn lead to less power for those who are not democrats. Elections create an incentive for politicians to act in favor of the public if they want to be reelected. People in a democracy have as democratic citizens an incentive to raise their voice to criticize the government. Criminals and conmen have an incentive to remain silent to avoid persecution.

Therefore autocracy and democracy are like two fix points. These fix points are the stable states to which the system returns to after any pertubation. If a country is democratic, i.e. conducts fair elections, protects basic freedoms and holds elected leaders accountable, then it will remain democratic, even if it is disturbed slightly by unrests and protests. If a country is authoritarian, i.e. has fradulent or no elections, ignores basic freedoms and does not hold elected leaders accountable, then it will remain authoritarian, even if there are unrests. If we use a kind of “democracy score” from 0 to 1 to measure fair elections, public checks and accountability (similar to Hyde, 2020), the system has two fix points at 0 and 1.

The Model

In evolutionary game theory which has been known for more than 40 years (John Maynard Smith, 1982) two fix points can be found in the stag-hunt game or the coordination game, and we can try to use the well-known replicator equations for these games to model the transition between an autocracy and a democracy. Normally the system returns to a stable democracy, but if the system is pertubed and a certain tipping point is crossed, then the system moves inevitably towards an autocracy (and vice versa). For a symmetric coordination game or the stag hunt game the mixed Nash equilibrium is in the middle. Both have similar dynamics – two fixed points, and one instable equilibrium between. As Brian Skyrms (2012) as argued, these kind of games can be applied to model cooperation and the evolution of social structure.

If the reward for not deviating from the majority increases dramatically (or alternatively the punishment for a strategy that deviates from the majority), then the equilibrium shifts accordingly. The idea is that we can model this democratic erosion by shifting the instable fixpoint in a coordination game model, which represents the equilibrium between those who cooperate to support autocracy and those who support democracy.

Backsliding as Transitions between Fix Points

Bermeo (2016) argues that democratic backsliding happens in different ways – coups d’état, election-day vote fraud, and in recent years in slightly more sophisticated forms suchs as promissory coups, executive aggrandizement, and strategic manipulation of elections. There are many types of election manupulation and election fraud in order to rig elections.

Although coups take place by definition suddenly and violenty, and can certainly be seen as the climax of democratic backsliding, democratic institutions like independent courts, and critical media can prevent them. Democratic erosion is necessary for coups to be successful because it eliminates these safeguards. Courts in authoritarian systems are special (Ginsburg & Moustafa, 2008).

A process of democratic erosion can begin slowly and can take a long time. Democracies erode and finally disappear step by step by

  • manipulation of fair elections (=> no accountability)
  • manipulation of the judiciary (=> no accountability)
  • manipulation of critical media (=> no public checks)

Therefore Levitsky & Ziblatt (2018) propose a three stage model of the democratic backsliding: attacking referees (esp. the judicial system), targeting opponents (political opponents, critical media outlets), and changing the rules of the game (changing constitutions, legislative bodies and electoral systems to consolidate power).

But if we see the group of people which has a special role like police officers, judges, opponents, and journalists and their extended families and friends as part of the population, we can model such a transition simply by counting the number of people who cooperate with the aspiring autocrat. The number of people who cooperate can be described by the replicator equation of the coordination game.

If a major part of the population supports democracy and it is well established and well protected by stable institutions like independent parliaments and courts, then the systems returns after an pertubation towards autocracy to a stable state (for instance the United States Capitol attack on Jan 6 2021 by Trump supporters where the institutions remained strong enough and the courts rejected attempts to manipulate the elections). If the magnitude of the unrest is high enough and the system is in a general crises, then it is possible to cross a tipping point towards an authoritarian regime.

In this model the tipping point which corresponds to the nash equilibrium represents the fraction of people which support autocracy or democracy. If a majority of people (in the model 67%) in an autocracy cooperate, i.e. by avoiding criticism of the autocratic ruler, it will remain one even for large pertubations which represent unrests. If such a system is disturbed by anti-government protests, then the system returns after a short pertubation to a stable state (for example the Arabic Spring uprisings). This makes sense because once an authoritarian regime is firmly establised, a major part of the population has an incentive to support the autocracy by silent agreement if the autocracy persecutes dissidents with the full power of the state.

If a only a minority of people in an autocracy cooperate (in the model 33%), while even many police officers, politicians, judges, and journalists are against it, then already small pertubations can lead to a regime change if the conditions are right.

If a majority of people (in the model 67%) in an democracy cooperate, i.e. by supporting the political institutions and fighting for fair elections, it will remain one even for large pertubations. If such a system is disturbed by riots or right-wing movements, then the system returns after a short pertubation to a stable state (for example the unsuccessful Capital Riot Jan 6 in the US). This makes sense because once an democratic regime is firmly establised, a major part of the population has an incentive to support the democracy and to obey the law since the regime persecutes criminals with the full power of the state.

The situation looks different if a democracy is severely weakened, for example by a heavy economic crisis. If only a minority of people in an democracy still cooperate (in the model 33%), while even many police officers, politicians, judges, and journalists are against it, then already small pertubations can lead to a rapid regime change if the conditions are right.

Since the model is symmetric, the same argument can be applied to the opposite situation where the system moves from an autocracy to a democracy.


Thanks to Glen Ropella for helpful comments how to improve the simulations & notebooks




  • John Maynard Smith, Evolution and the theory of games, Cambridge University Press, 1982
  • Josef Hofbauer and Karl Sigmund, Evolutionary games and population dynamics, Cambridge University Press, 1998
  • Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
  • Martin A. Nowak, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life, Harvard University Press, 2006
  • Tom Ginsburg and Tamir Moustafa, Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes, Cambridge University Press, 2008
  • William H. Sandholm, Population Games and Evolutionary Dynamics, MIT Press, 2010
  • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2012
  • Brian Skyrms, The Stag Hunt and the Evolution of Social Structure, Cambridge University Press, 2012
  • Jan-Werner Müller, What is populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
  • Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Penguin Random House, 2018
  • Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019
  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, W. W. Norton & Company, 2020
  • Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, Flariron Books, 2020
  • Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Doubleday, 2020
  • Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship, Yale University Press, 2021

24 May 2021

Entanglement of Evolutionary Systems

Posted by jofr. No Comments

In my first book “The emergence of complexity” I have tried to find answers to the question how complex systems can emerge from simple rules and parts. Where does the marvellous complexity we see in the world around us come from? The answer is of course life and evolution. The rules of evolution are well known. What we can do is nevertheless finding interdisciplinary connections to increase our understanding of evolution in general. One thing I have tried is for instance to apply concepts from physics like tunneling in Quantum Mechanics to evolutionary fitness landscapes.

Quantum tunneling is a quantum mechanical phenomenon where a wave function can propagate through a potential barrier. Unlike a classical particle which can not pass through such a barrier a particle in quantum mechanics can tunnel through a potential barrier. The wave function of a quantum particle describes the probability of finding the particle in this place. Inside of the barrier it is exponentially decreasing. The larger the barrier, the lower the probability that it can tunnel through it. We can indeed apply the concept of tunneling through a barrier to complex adaptive systems. For example a startup which tries to find a way to generate revenue is like a quantum particle that moves through a barrier. The longer it takes, the lower the probability it can make it. It needs to borrow enough venture capital to pass the barrier and to invent new technologies. If the startup is successful, it leads to the emergence of new companies.

The emergence of religions and nations can be similar: as a proto-state a colony depends for a long time on the occupying colonizer and often borrows ideas from them. In ancient Israel, people borrowed ideas from the Babylonian (law codes), Egyptian (temples) and Phoenician (alphabets) cultures to invent their own religion, which eventually lead to the evolutionary transition from tribalism to “scribalism” [1]. Can we model this transition from tribalism to scribalism and eventually to nationalism by an agent-based model, even if the real history is based on a complex narrative [2] ?

Agent-based models of the different *-isms like tribalism, communism, nationalism, authoritarianism or fascism would require multi-dimensional evolutionary models which describe how large collective entities like states and nations develop and dissolve on multiple levels. This is difficult because even one-dimensional evolutionary models can exhibit complex predator-prey dynamics. But if we succeed, we can gain valuable insights from these modeling attempts [3] using the toolbox of complex adaptive systems [4].

As far as I know there are no agent-based models of fascism so far, although it can be understood like cancer as a social dysfunction. Like cancer, fascism can be seen as an aggressive selfish rebellion of an entity that does not want to obey the social contracts in the community of other entities. Cancer cells are rule-breaking cheaters in a multi-cellular organism [5] which applies to dictators in authoritarian and totalitarian systems as well. They relentlessly break and bend the rules: they lie, steal, murder or invade neighboring countries. Nevertheless they also depend on cooperation, but not necessarily the same cooperation which is common in the multilateral world they live in. If cancer can be described in general as a broken social contract, how can we model this social dysfunction within a community by a generic agent-based model that is applicable to social forms of cancer like fascism?

We have developed complex models of cooperation [6], but we still need to understand how selfish entities can break and bend the rules of cooperation that enable the existence of large-scale multi-cellular organisms [7]. If they use a form of cooperation, how does this cooperation differ from the cooperation in the original organism? Do they use a more ancient form of cooperation which lacks differentiation and is no longer in use but still available? Agent-based models of cancer (in biology) and fascism (in society) could help us to answer these questions and to untangle the complex systems which result from evolution.

When I read a blog post from Marion Blute (who wrote the book “Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution” [8]) it struck me that we can use another term from Quantum Mechanics for evolution: in humans biological and cultural evolution are “entangled”. It is this entanglement that makes us human, and which produces on a larger scale the various *-isms that cause so much trouble. Can we untangle the mysteries by using agent-based models? I would like to work on these questions in my remaining time.

[1] Mark Leuchter (Ed.), Scribes and Scribalism, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020

[2] Jacob L. Wright, War, Memory, and National Identity in the Hebrew Bible, Cambridge University Press, 2020

[3] Lars-Erik Cederman, Emergent Actors in World Politics: How States and Nations Develop and Dissolve, Princeton University Press, 1997

[4] John H. Miller, Scott E. Page, Complex Adaptive Systems, Princeton University Press, 2009

[5] Athena Aktipis, The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer, Princeton University Press, 2020

[6] Robert Axelrod, The Complexity of Cooperation, Princeton University Press 1997

[7] Robert Axelrod, David E. Axelrod, and Kenneth J. Pienta, Evolution of cooperation among tumor cells, PNAS September 5, 2006 103 (36) 13474-13479

[8] Marion Blute, Darwinian Sociocultural Evolution: Solutions to Dilemmas in Cultural and Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2010

(Image from Gerd Altmann on Pixabay)

14 May 2021

Moral outrage as adaptation to defection

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This week a podcast episode where David Sloan Wilson and Elliot Sober discuss multilevel selection made me wonder if moral outrage could be a mechanism which has evolved to reveal rule breakers and to discover selfish individuals in a group of altruists. What is moral outrage?

American neuroscientist Molly J. Crockett defines moral outrage as “a powerful emotion that motivates people to shame and punish wrongdoers”. She says moral outrage would be at least as old as civilization itself [1]. Outrage itself could be older since it is based on anger, and even monkeys and chimpanzees can express anger and outrage over inequity and unfair behavior. It begins with the offspring that protests if a sibling has received more maternal care. The classic example is the wrongdoer who steals food from a companion. Primates will protest against defectors who steal their food and punish them [2]

In human groups who adhere to social and moral norms which we learn from our parents outrage about unfair personal behavior of deceivers and defectors has apparently evolved into moral outrage which is triggered when a moral norm has been violated [1]. Moral outrage could be a mechanism which has evolved over time to reveal rule breakers and to discover selfish individuals in a group of altruists. Punishing defectors clearly increases the fitness of altruistic groups [4]. But before defectors can be punished the culprits must be identified, the members of a group must be aware of them and they must be aroused enough so that they are ready to punish the defector which has been unnoticed so far. This is the function of outrage.

In this sense moral outrage can be seen as an adaptation to defectors in altruistic groups. Just like disgust helps the body to get rid of toxic substances and fear helps to avoid external threats, moral outrage can help a group to identify defectors so that overly selfish individuals which violate social norms can be expelled or punished. Social norms can be as simple as “do not steal food from your companion” or “do not make secret plans to harm someone”, which even chimpanzees understand well (as we know since Frans de Waal’s book “Chimpanzee Politics” [3]).

Molly J. Crockett writes that moral outrage is indeed a powerful emotion that motivates people to shame and punish wrongdoers [1]. The problem is in the modern age of the 21st century the world has changed. The Internet can amplify this ancient mechanism on a global scale and result in things like “Cancel Culture” and “Wokeism”, where we get trapped in escalating conflicts characterized by righteous anger [5,6]. Paradoxically, an emotion that has evolved to ensure cooperation in small groups and tribes can lead to endless conflict and polarization in a globally connected society.

[1] Molly J. Crockett, Moral outrage in the digital age, Nature Human Behaviour, 1(11) (2017) 769-771
[2] Frans B.M. de Waal, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Harvard Univesity Press, 1996
[3] Frans B.M. de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (25th Anniversary edition), Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
[4] Ernst Fehr, Simon Gächter, Altruistic punishment in humans, Nature Vol. 415 (2002) 137–140
[5] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Simon & Schuster, 2021
[6] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Vintage, 2012

(Chimpanzee image from Pixabay user suju-foto)

18 Apr 2021

Complex High-Level Genes

Posted by jofr. 1 Comment

Religious texts are full of analogies and metaphors. Why? First of all because it is the way the mind works. Metaphors are the way the mind works, like combustion is the way a combustion engine works. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson describe in “Metaphors we live by” [1] metaphors are a fundamental mechanism of the mind, because they are essential to understand abstract ideas. Whenever we want to understand an abstract idea we need to use metaphors or analogies, and religious texts are almost exclusively about abstract entities and topics.

Analogies are essential for the understanding of parables, fables & fairy tales too. Fairy tales are an important part of secular and national culture. People always wanted to be rich and famous, and in medieval times this meant to be like the king and his queen in his castle. We used to learn the fairy tales in school or from our parents and now in modern times by TV. In all these channels they are transmitted with high fidelity, as Kevin Llaland argues in his book “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” [2]. Stories like these remain constant for centuries. For instance in Germany there is an age-old fairy tale of the brothers Grimm named Frau Holle which is a parable that hard work is rewarded and laziness is punished. Fairy tales are similar to the parables in the Bible. A parable is a story based on an analogy or metaphor which is used to teach a moral lesson. This means it tells people what to do in an abstract situation.

We can consider fairy tales and parables not only as nice little stories, but as complex high level genes for abstract guidelines of behavior. Low-level genes such as “Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” give direct, simple commands. High-level genes are encoded in longer stories and parables. They give like oracles in ancient Greece hints and recommendations about behavior in complex situations. The parable of the Good Samaritan for instance explains the importance of compassion and charity even towards people which we hate.

Religious texts are full of analogies and metaphors because they deal with abstract topics. And they contain plenty of parables. In this sense analogies indeed help to enable cumulative cultural evolution in the first place, as Charlotte Brand et al. argue in a new paper. Brand, Mesoudi and Smaldino argue that “analogy-building served a critical role in the evolution of cumulative culture by allowing humans to learn and transmit complex behavioural sequences that would otherwise be too cognitively demanding or opaque to acquire” [3].

The story of our evolution from ape-like ancestors to modern humans is long [4], but in my opionion analogies alone are not the essential step from primitive culture to cumulative cultural evolution though, as Brand et al. argue. The first higher civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egpyt started after the invention of writing systems, whether cuneiform or hieroglyphs, what mattered was the language was written down. The invention of writing systems was the crucial step for the transition to a new evolutionary system. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd are right if they argue that we are not made by biological genes alone [5]. We are made by multiple genes in multiple dimensions. A new writing system for a language offers the possibility to count people, grains and cattle, but it can also store completely genes of a new system.

If spoken language is persisted by writing systems, then culture cam turn into cumulative cultural evolution, because written language can be used to create new systems, including new evolutionary systems. It can contain recipes and instructions which can be copied, replicated and extended. It can be used to specify genes, from short and simple genes to long and complex genes.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors we live by”, University of Chicago Press, 1980
[2] Kevin Laland, “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind”, Princeton University Press, 2017
[3] Charlotte O. Brand, Alex Mesoudi, Paul Smaldino, “Analogy as a Catalyst for Cumulative Cultural Evolution”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Mar 23 (2021)
[4] Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson, “A Story of Us – A New Look at Human Evolution”, Oxford University Press, 2021
[5] Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, “Not by genes alone”, University of Chicago Press, 2005

Image references:
Unsplash image of religious book from Aaron Burden
Unsplash image of Eltz castle from Dan Asaki

7 Mar 2021

Extinct genes we lost along the way

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Our DNA contains about 20,000 genes. They are embedded in large non-coding parts which include a number of dead genes. Dead genes resemble functional genes but are inactive. We have only just begun to unravel their stories. According to this PBS Eons video we are not just defined by the genes that we have gained over the course of our evolution, but also by the genes that we have lost along the way. As an example it cites the gene “Gulop” which was used to produced Vitamin-C but is now non-functional.

Are there any examples for dead genes in holy scripts, i.e. lost genes in the social world? They should hide in the non-coding regions and look like a functional gene which has become inactive and has lost its function or meaning. In my book I try to explain the difference between coding and non-coding regions: non-coding regions are the parts which contain no instructions, rules or commandments but descriptions of geography, ancestry, history or simply actions of actors, for example parts where Paul travels to Cyprus or Moses climbs on a mountain. The important parts are the pieces of advice that Paul writes in his letters or the commandments on the stone tablets that Moses brings back from the mountain. They are the genes which contain rules that affect and change behavior.

If the environment changes during the course of history, a gene can became defunct. Some parts of life remain the same even if centuries go by: wine is still produced from grapes which grow in vineyards, olive oil is made from olive trees and people still would like to have what their neighbor has. Some parts of life have changed though: we no longer make bloody sacrifices of animals in temples, and there are no slaves or witches anymore in the modern world of the 21st century.

An example for a lost defunct religious gene is therefore Exodus 22:18 which says that a witch or sorceress should be killed. While it may have one reason behind the terrible witch-hunts in medieval times, today the meaning of the word witch has changed or “mutated”: there are no such persons anymore except in fictional books from J.K. Rowling. Even if the gene is expressed, it has no function, and will not change any behavior, because it no longer has a meaning. The commandment has become inactive.

Similarly there are no slaves or sacrifices anymore, so Exodus 22:2 and Exodus 23,18 are other examples of inactive genes. Slaves have been the precursors of employees, but today they do not exist anymore. Sacrifices have been the precursors of taxes. All commandments which are about slaves or sacrifices are now dead genes. We no longer sacrifice animals alive but pay taxes to the tax office of the state.

Just like Vitamin-C is essential for humans, money is essential for the maintenance of the church. In this sense the sacrifices of animals and food which no longer takes place is the counterpart of Vitamin-C which is no longer produced. The big Christian churches have lost in some countries (at least in Germany) the ability to generate enough money to pay the maintenance costs for churches and priests. Taxes are collected by the state and the churches receive the money from the state, just like we receive the Vitamin-C we need from external sources.

More about the hidden genes that hide in our holy books can be found here.

( DNA Image from Arek Socha on Pixabay )

6 Mar 2021

Phase transition in swarm formation

Posted by jofr. No Comments

In physics there is a phase transition between a gaseous state where every molecule moves in isolation, a liquid state where loosely coupled molecules flock together and a solid state where strongly coupled molecules stick together permanently in a rigid way. The direction from gas to fluid is called condensation, the opposite direction is called vaporization.

Swarm formation in a social system which is composed of many independent agents is like a phase transition from gaseous to liquid state. There is a (second order) phase transition for actors between a state where everyone acts in isolation and follows his own intentions, and a collective state where actors in a swarm stick together like fluid molecules in a bubble and eventually form a group.

When does the transition happen? The group cohesion in a swarm obviously changes depending on how well the group building rules are known and applied. If the cohesion of the group crosses a critical threshold, groups start to emerge and isolated actors condense to a group, or they start to dissolve again and the group vaporizes. If a group forms at all and what properties it has depends on how tightly or loosely the agents adhere to social norms that keep the group together.

The critical parameter if a phase transitions happens is not temperature or pressure as in the case of fluids, but the period of the teaching interval, which is a measure for rule adherence if the agents are forgetful actors that need to be taught regularly. Here is a simulation result from my book “Hidden Genes” which describe the phase transition depending on the teaching interval. Have you ever wondered why all major Abrahamic religions require a weekly meeting at a 7 days interval where the rules are taught? Well, without these meetings people originally would start to forget the rules and the group would dissolve – or vaporize like a bubble that turns into gas.

Once a swarm has formed, it has certain properties. A liquid maintains a fairly constant density and viscosity, a group maintains a certain cohesion. As Michele J. Gelfand has argued we can distinguish between tight cultures which adhere strictly to collective rules and social norms, and loose cultures which adhere less tightly to the rules. Is this helpful to complete an evolutionary view of life, as David Sloan Wilson argues in his recent book? I think yes.

( Droplet image by ju Irun from Pixabay )

* Michele J. Gelfand, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World”, Scribner, 2018
* Michele Gelfand on Tight and Loose Cultures in a TVOL Interview with David Sloan Wilson
* David Sloan Wilson, “This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution”, Pantheon, 2019

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