A Nobel Prize for Understanding Perverse Incentives

by Aaron Jonas Stutz
oligopoly
The French economist–and newly announced Nobel laureate–Jean Tirole has illuminated the possibilities and limits of financial regulation of very large, powerful firms. (Image links to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences popular publication on Tirole’s work.)

The first and last Nobel prizes to be announced each year–Medicine/Physiology and Economics–are the ones most immediately relevant for biocultural anthropological research. (And to the extent that human behavioral decisions and aggregate behavior patterns are shaped and constrained by human biological life-history patterns, I would argue that the kind of pioneering behavioral and life-history work carried out by anthropologists Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill, Hillard Kaplan and others would merit consideration in either prize category. In any case …) I have already posted about the medicine/physiology award-winning research, which is on a complex but important topic: dynamic proprioceptive embodied feedback with neural mapping of the immediate spatial environment.

Early last week, the Swedish Riksbank’s Economics Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to the French economist Jean Tirole. And Tirole’s work addresses contemporary, large-scale institutional manifestations of a very general problem in human social life: how multiple or enduring conflicts of interests are often aggravated by one powerful party, whose decisions (usually unintentionally) create perverse incentives for other parties, both powerful and weak. As we will see, the issue of perverse incentives–when considered from a biocultural evolutionary perspective–is even deeper than you might expect. Continue reading A Nobel Prize for Understanding Perverse Incentives

A Nobel Prize for Understanding Proprioception

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

How does an animal body achieve a sense of where it is and where it’s going? Today’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine recognizes foundational scientific brain research in proprioception. This term in psychology may not be a familiar one, but perception (a more familiar “ception” word) wouldn’t be possible without proprioception, which is the central nervous system’s monitoring of the body’s relationship–in part and in whole–to its surroundings.

nobel prize in medicine 2014 Continue reading A Nobel Prize for Understanding Proprioception

Stories Without Words

Phylogenetic relationships among extant anthropoid primate lineages, including Old World monkeys, apes, and humans. Evolutionarily derived features hypothesized to distinguish embodied niche construction in the nested great ape-hominin and hominin-only clades, respectively, are highlighted in the text boxes lower right. CC-BY 2014.
by Aaron Jonas Stutz

Awareness means slightly different things in different situations. We become aware of a pattern or change in our immediate surroundings, via sensory cognition. We become aware of patterns or changes over time through an interaction among sensory experience, emotional experience, and memory. And we become aware of abstract notions and imagined possibilities through mindful experiences: dreams, sudden awareness of dramatic fears or comic surprises, or learned, disciplined introspection. All of these forms of awareness involve our central nervous systems amping up physiological and cognitive activity in response to (external or internal) stimulus. But we usually don’t think about these diverse awareness processes together … let alone how they might interact with one another to shape more complex, hard-to-grasp phenomena like consciousness.

Those interactions among awareness processes are probably VERY SIGNIFICANTLY recursive for us. Awareness of intestinal discomfort or simply heightened awareness gained from greater oxygenation with a faster heartbeat and vasodilation could come from a sudden exciting memory, from an extrasomatic stimulus, or from a learned association between the perceived environmental feature and the constructed memory. In turn, the sustained awareness committed to introspection and decision-making can mediate bodily discomfort or excitement, leading to less agitation and more efficient interaction with the extrasomatic environment in the future. It may also have a cascading effect on associations with anxiety-related memories, altering how we related to our past, how we associate learning with earlier experiences. Continue reading Stories Without Words

Action as Embodied Narrative

Or, The Anthropology and Psychology of Doing Nothing … and Then Doing

Painting, Smoking, Eating. By Philip Guston, 1972. From wikipaintings.org.

In our recursive, never-ending engagement with the world (and thus, with each other … and with ourselves), we humans generally create our own resolve about how that world is supposed to be.

And we do that by convincing ourselves that we can heroically make clear sense of muddled situations.

Should I add another spoonful of sugar to my tea? Or should I turn my concern for health and longevity into fast principle? Should I give into small desires, or should I always moderate? Objectively, reasonable people can provide arguments that on the balance, it’s better to treat yourself, at least once in a while … but maybe, it’s actually better not to, it’s actually better to develop stronger mind-body discipline.

In other words, this is a simple case–as professors so often say, encouraging their students to dare to pose critical questions–of there being “no one right answer.”

To be sure, most of us find that in the real-time emotional experience of moments–those seconds and minutes under which we maintain acute cognitive attention on a given situation–we may strongly resolve to act according to one answer or the other. Making that embodied decision through action makes us feel good.

Continue reading Action as Embodied Narrative

We’ve Seen Our Carrying Capacity … And It Is Us

An extraordinarily simple model of how human population grows in feedback with our environmental carrying capacity was introduced by Joel E. Cohen in 1995. Shown here by the orange curve, the model allows us to interpolate the pattern of demographic change between historical estimates of global population in 1 CE (ranging between ca. 200-400 million) and the registration of our global census size reaching 7 billion in 2012. Note how the Cohen model curve fits the historical estimates much better than a comparable interpolation based on a traditional logistic growth model with a fixed environmental carrying capacity. Moreover, the Cohen model is consistent with UN population projections of slowing population growth through 2100 CE. It is expected--based on recent trends of falling fertility--that human population will fall somewhere between 6 and 17 billion in the year 2100, involving stalled or negative population growth.
An extraordinarily simple model of how human population grows in feedback with our environmental carrying capacity was introduced by Joel E. Cohen in 1995. Shown here by the orange curve, the model allows us to interpolate the pattern of demographic change between historical estimates of global population in 1 CE (ranging between ca. 200-400 million) and the registration of our global census size reaching 7 billion in 2012. Note how the Cohen model curve fits the historical estimates much better than a comparable interpolation based on a traditional logistic growth model with a fixed environmental carrying capacity. Moreover, the Cohen model is consistent with UN population projections of slowing population growth through 2100 CE. It is expected–based on recent trends of falling fertility–that human population will fall somewhere between 6 and 17 billion in the year 2100, involving stalled or negative population growth.

Nearly twenty years ago, the mathematical ecologist Joel E. Cohen published a landmark book scientifically evaluating the question, “How many people can the Earth support?” In a companion article in the journal Science, Cohen introduced and explained what he called a mathematical cartoon of human population change. He made two very simple suggestions about how we should alter our assumptions concerning the relationship between our population size and the ecosystem resources that feed its growth. First, Cohen said, don’t worry first and foremost about absolute physical limits to key resources–of fresh water or arable land, say. Second, worry more about the social relationship between the number of people and the efficiency of economic production.

Mathematically, this involves a minor change in notation. We’ll get to that in a moment, but it is worth noting that it is almost absurdly simple.

Let’s consider the traditional model that Cohen wanted to update. The classic logistic growth model represents how finite resources will limit a population’s growth–specifically when there is a constant population level, denoted by the letter K, at which that population’s aggregate extraction, consumption, and impact on resources is in equilibrium with the wider ecosystemic renewal of those resources. K–or the population’s ecological carrying capacity–is known as the largest size the population can reach while leaving just enough material, nutrients, and energy to sustain demographic replacement in the next generation. In nature, a population at this ecological limit would not literally be in perfect harmony from one generation to the next. But it is an equilibrium level to which slight fluctuations in population growth or decline will return. What did Cohen change? He suggested that we should no longer see K as a constant. Rather, we should see carrying capacity as a factor that changes over time. Thus, he suggested designating carrying capacity as a mathematical function of time, K(t), which would vary in a mutually causal relationship with population change.

Continue reading We’ve Seen Our Carrying Capacity … And It Is Us