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Archive for November, 2012

Some human phenotypes have very low levels of canalization, such as many gender roles (e.g., pink is for girls). Others, such as having two arms and two legs, are quite canalized.

If the environment suddenly changed such that walking upright or having a large cerebral cortex was dangerous, humans would be in big trouble.

I think societal infrastructure is like the canalization of traits of a species.

Education reform

Not long ago it was necessary to travel to have access to knowledge.  Libraries were built.  Schools were built.  Eventually, buses were purchased and children all over the country were transported to these schools each day.  Thousands of teachers teach essentially the same lessons to kids everyday, with varying degrees of quality.  Housing kids at schools during daylight hours made it much easier for parents to be employed outside of the home.  Our society is very much structured around this.

However, we now live in a world where anyone with access to the internet does not need to travel to have access to knowledge. Further, it is extremely inefficient (horrifyingly so) to have thousands of teachers simultaneously developing lectures for the same topic.  In case this is not clear, consider the following two approaches for teaching algebra I to students:

scenario 1:

  • each algebra teacher (there are thousands of them) develops her/his own lectures (this is many hours of work per teacher, where each teacher is essentially replicating the work of the others)
  • they use whatever standard textbook the school district chooses

scenario 2:

  • people around the country develop interactive algebra 1 lessons (including animations) and submit them online (to something like Khan academy)
  • users vote on which lecture is most effective (similar to how memrise gives you several options, and you can rate them)
  • algebra students can go to the site and work through the best lesson or lessons

In scenario 2 all it takes is one extremely talented and passionate person to make a great algebra lesson.  This tool can then be used by everyone for many years.  That is extremely efficient, relative to scenario 1, where there is a lot of replication of much lower quality work.

However, it is very difficult to design a new educational system, when the current infrastructure is so canalized.  We are starting to see resources such as Khan academy used in classrooms, but the basic setup of children being bussed to public schools to be segregated by age, to deal with chimp politics, to follow a rigid schedule, while learning from dry textbooks, hasn’t really changed.    It’s all small adaptations while maintaining the key features of the species.

In general, the richest societies build with the technology of the day.  Decades or centuries later, it’s potentially easier for a society that is developing for the first time to build with the new technologies, than it is for an older society to rebuild.

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Dream questions

Suppose you have the ability to simulate a human and place him/her in a virtual environment.  You won’t know ahead of time what kind of environment they will be placed in — it could be a wonderful place or it could be a terrifying place.   They will live in that environment for a short period of time, after which they will die and you will inherit some of their memories.  What’s in it for you is that, by inheriting some of their memories, you will experience the equivalent of reading a good book (it could be terrifying, erotic, fun, etc).  Is it ethical to do this?  Should we care about the simulated human that was in a simulated environment for a short period of time?   If it’s unethical, does that suggest that we should work towards developing ways to stop nightmares from happening?  And what does this say about creating life in general (without having confidence that we are not sticking the person into a nightmare)?

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Hopefully it is not controversial to say that most humans have BS detectors that do not work very well.  How often, for example, does someone tell you something that you immediately know isn’t true (which can be demonstrated with two seconds of googling or going to snopes)?

I think it is very difficult for logical brain people to understand that when social brain people say they believe X, they are not saying that they’ve given it a lot of thought, have looked at the evidence, and decided that X was true.  Saying that they believe X is telling you what social group they belong to — it’s throwing up a gang sign.

Given that humans have large social brains, perhaps it is not surprising that having good BS detectors is not important.  To bond with your in-group, it’s important to trust them.

However, it is not hard to imagine people having good BS detectors and signaling trust.  If you think of it in terms of multilevel selection, you could reap the group benefits by signalling agreement, while enjoying the individual benefits by not believing in non-sense.   So why doesn’t that seem to be how our brains evolved?

I think the problem here is that in cases where the BS detector would benefit you individually, pretending to agree with the group would harm them (costing you the group benefit).  For example, if your group says that everyone should eat berries that you know are poison, you will not get the group benefits if your group members all die (while you secretly spit out the berries).  On the other hand, if their beliefs are more benign (like belief in a rain god), you would not get much (if any) individual benefit from awareness that what they believe is false.

Without multilevel selection pressure, I think that group benefits of bonding via trust trump individual benefits of being a critical thinker.  Thus, broken BS detectors.

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