[webmaster broke last week's post into two parts and added new photos to this part]
Day 2. November 8, 2008
“Memo to all American speakers: At some point during your talk please apologize for George W. Bush and make a joke about his stupidity, then thank God for Obama (even you atheists) and mention that you voted for him.” Although no such paper memo was distributed to the speakers, by the second day I began to wonder if it was a tacit agreement nonetheless, since nearly everyone did it. Except me.
On this day the German ethologist and evolutionary psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, author of the excellent book, Gut Feelings, began with a funny story about an economics professor who was struggling to decide if he should take a new job position at another university, when a colleague told him to just compute the value and diminishing marginal utility of each option and then calculate the decision, “just like you teach your economics students to do.” The professor’s response: “Oh, come on, you don’t understand, this is serious!” His point was that when it comes to real life most of us make most of our decisions under great uncertainty. We use our gut feelings instead, and more often than not that works just as well as complex models. Gigerenzer’s most notable example was an economist (I believe it was Harry Markowitz) who received the Nobel Prize for his complex model of how best to make investments, but when it came to his own portfolio Markowitz reverted to a simple 1/n formula of the equal distribution of funds over a large number of investment tools.
Then the evolutionary biologist David Barash spoke about redirected aggression, recounting a story about how when his horse kicked his dog, his dog bit the horse. That’s directed aggression. More often than not, however, when A kicks B, B kicks C. Why? Reputation. If B does not kick C then others will start kicking him. (This assumes that if you kick A back, he’ll kick your butt for good.) Bush’s invasion of Iraq was redirected aggression from 9/11, says Barash, because there is no definitive state of Al Qaeda to kick back. Barash was followed by his wife, Judith Eve Lipton, who spoke about the myth of monogamy (take home message: just because animals are polygamous and promiscuous doesn’t mean you should be), reminding the audience that her and Barash have been faithfully married for over three decades. Some myth.
The funniest talk of the day was by Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who stumbled into happiness research after his mother told him to marry a nice Jewish girl and then make lots of babies and money. Effectively blending data and humor, Gilbert said that the research mostly confirms his mom’s intuitions: married people are happier than unmarried/divorced people, money makes you more happy until you reach a certain level (above the poverty line), after which there is diminishing marginal utility — making more money makes you happier, but less so the more you make. Bill Gates’s happiness is only marginally higher than, say, Richard Branson’s happiness. I should have such a diminishing returns problem. As for children, well, it’s a qualified yes. Anecdotally, says Gilbert, most people, retrospectively, will say that their children makes them happier, but if you employ a survey technique of daily/hourly monitoring of happiness, women report that child care is just barely above household chores on the happiness scale, but well below eating and hanging out with friends.
Later that afternoon, the “armchair economist” Steven Landsburg (who has a book by that title) gave us one of the best lessons of the weekend: “When people are shielded from the consequences of their actions, the outcomes are usually bad.” He then gave us a view of the world through an economist’s eyes. For example, how much pollution do we want, 0%? No. Without pollution we could not drive, fly, or live. But we don’t want 100% pollution, because then we’d all be dead. We need just enough pollution. How much is that? Landsburg’s answer: “Beats me!” But he explained that whenever there is a problem of too much or too little X (sex, pollution, fire departments, etc.), you consider the cost-benefit ratios, especially the ones the decision makers were shielded from, then you follow the logic wherever it leads you.
Next we heard from the Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, who made the trip to Sweden for her work on eliminating land mines. Themes of her talk: Obama good. Bush bad. Nuclear power bad. Oil bad. Invasion of Iraq bad. American consumers bad. Experts bad. World leaders bad, especially Bush. 20% of people (bad Americans) use 80% of the world’s resources. And Bush is bad. And there weren’t even any jokes.
Williams was followed by the evolutionary psychologist David Buss, the world’s leading expert on why people fuck, technically known as “strategies of human mating.” Desire is at the foundation of the entire mating system, which shapes the tactics we employ. When thinking about evolution by natural selection we need to get past the emphasis on nature red in tooth and claw. We don’t just make war. We also make love. Darwin was troubled by mysteries that could not be explained by natural selection. “The sight of the peacock’s tail gives me nightmares,” he wrote in his notebook. The answer Darwin devised was sexual selection. There are two types. (1) Intra-sexual competition: competition between males for females (stags locking horns). Whatever qualities lead to success in these contests get passed on to offspring. In humans, males compete for status hierarchy for greater resources: mates, food, healthcare. (2) Inter-sexual selection: preferential mate choice. Female choice. As in: women control sex. This is a classic case of science confirming what every guy in the world already knows.
Sexual selection leads to a menu of mating strategies: long-term mating, short-term mating, extra-pair copulation, serial mating, mixed mating. In his research Buss discovered that across 37 different cultures, there were 32 different characteristics that very nearly all people desires. These include: love, exciting personality, good health, kindness, intelligence, sociable, easy going. Of course, there is cultural variability. For example, the desire for virginity and chastity is indispensable in China, but in Sweden the Virgin Mary would have a hard time getting a date. What do men want? A fertile mate. What does fertility look like? Cues that are statistically associated with certain underlying qualities. Cues to youth and health, for example, may be found in a symmetrical face, clear complexion, an hourglass figure, and a waist-to-hip ratio of .70. Get your measuring calibers out boys! What do women want? Resources. Women have a heavy metabolic investment in children and so need a partner with good resources. Cues: ambition, industriousness … and a Bentley Continental.
The geneticist Dean Hamer, discoverer of the gay gene, the god gene, and the men-don’t-ask-for-directions gene, asked “What Makes People Gay?” Historically, theories have included: Religion (bad person), Freud (bad family), Skinner (bad role models), choice (bad decision), and social constructionism (bad environment). That’s the wrong question, says Hamer. The right question: what makes people straight? Why are people heterosexual? Everyone answers: it’s biological, natural, because that’s how we pass on our genes. We have a strong genetic program to desire people of the opposite sex. But if it is genetic, there is variation, which means that there will be variation in our sexual orientation genes, and thus there will a range of sexual preferences. He used Kinsey’s 0-6 scale from straight to gay, with bisexual at 3 (and, what, Richard Simmons at 6?). But there are male-female differences in sexual orientation, with men either completely gay or straight and women showing a wider range of choices. Why? No one knows. But twin studies show that about 50 percent of the variance in sexual orientation is accounted for by genes. Which genes? Gays are more likely to have gay relatives on the mother’s side than the father’s side. This implies that the genes are on the X chromosome. In a study on gay brothers there is a gene on one chromosome called Xq28, which gay brothers share but straight brothers do not share. But that’s just one example. It is more likely that there are at least 50 genes, on a variety of chromosomes, involved in sexual orientation, so there is no “the” gay gene.
Since gays don’t have children, how would these gay genes get passed down through the generations? According to Hamer (if I got this right), a gene that makes men sexually attractive may also occasionally make men gay, but it will make females want to have sex with these super sexually attractive males (some of whom are gay). This suggests a simple sexual selection model that keeps the gene complex for homosexuality in the population. If I’m understanding this correctly, I think this refutes my unscientific theory for why we should embrace gay marriage: that more gay guys means more straight sex for straight guys. Apparently not.
Lame jokes aside, why in the world did Proposition 8 — banning gay marriage — pass in my hyper-liberal state of California? I put the question to Hamer. His answer: a lot of liberals, especially in the African-American community, consider marriage to be a separate issue from other civil rights, and thus we’ve got a ways to go for gays to achieve equal standing under the law. Hamer cited one study in which people were asked “Do you think homosexuality is a choice or are people born that way?” Americans were split 50/50. But when asked “Should gays be allowed to marry?” the answer was an overwhelming “No” for those who think homosexuality is a choice, and “Yes” for those who think gays are born that way. Since the science shows that homosexuality is not a choice, one solution to the political civil liberties issue is more science research and better science education.
I’ll close out this entry with a few snaps from my iPhone of an afternoon at the Great Pyramid of Cholula and a smallish but ornate Church of Santa Maria de Tonantzintla, both in the nearby town of Cholula, which I snuck away to during an afternoon break.