Recently the BBC finished broadcasting the last of documentary maker Adam Curtis’ latest series “All watched over by machines of loving grace”. I’m usually a fan of Mr Curtis, his shows are often interesting and insightful, and highlight the contradictions in social themes and movements that have taken over the western world in the last century. Case in point would be this segment from new-swipe about how the framing of conflicts by the media into simplegood/evil makes dealing with the intricacies of geo-politics impossible. However, the latest series bugged me, and particularly the last episode that focused on Kin Selection…
Which he got wrong. Infuriatingly wrong. Not only did he fail to express or explain the theory, but it was framed in an horrendously manipulative way. Such was my indignation with this program in fact, that throughout the running time I resembled a Daily Mail reader during their morning outrage.
"Sigh, those refugees will want food AND water next"
Kin Selection & Altruism
The prevailing theory of the evolution of behaviour at the time was of group-selection. Group selection as it stood was essentially a Disney-version of evolution; one where particularly noble member of the species would sacrifice itself for the good of the group (Possibly while be-hatted and singing). Such virtuous individuals aid group survival and thus their presence helps their particular group prevail in the Darwinian thunder-dome against groups lacking such Princes amongst organisms. All very nice, but (in this form at least) really quite wrong. Essentially, as many a coward has discovered, nature favours the individuals who stay behind the front line sipping cognac and bedding the local debutantes while others die in their place.
Kin selection, and the gene-eye view in general, is a departure for this, it suggests that for altruism to evolve there has to be some advantage to the organism or it will be swamped by others more than willing to let those possessing the Prince Valiant gene die in their place. The Kin Selection equation is probably one of the most recognized bits of maths in evolutionary biology and it looks like this rB>C: where r is how related you are to someone, B is benefit to the other person, and C is the cost to yourself. Put simply, in general the more you are related to someone the more cost you are willing to endure to help that person, and it is one of the building blocks of altruistic behaviour. Curtis presents this as some form of aberration, as if the very suggestion is anathema to the milk of human kindness. The trouble is, not only has study after study demonstrated kin-centric behaviour is a human universal, but despite how much you refer to equations and mathematics as cold and robotic “you’re nicer to your family that strangers” is the world’s least controversial statement after “kittens are cute”.
I imagine even those who aren’t knee deep in evolutionary game theory on a daily basis were surprised by how shocked and revolted Curtis was at the idea that altruism is often directed towards relatives. But of course, humans live (now at least) in huge societies and this theory can’t explain the level of apparent altruism humans demonstrate (Not that anyone ever claimed it could by the way). Kin Selection though is just one aspect the evolution of altruistic behaviour. But more on that later, for now I will take issue with how the program itself was constructed.
Rwanda was used as the backdrop as, I believe, an attempt to juxtapose the ‘simple’ and elegant concepts of maths – I use ‘simple’ as those equations give me a headache just thinking about the cover of the book their in – with the grubby complexity of the world . This has after all been the series’ theme after all, “Here’s a theory that expresses something in numbers, but look how complicated the world really it” as it were. However there is a certain rhetorical trickery going on here. If the aim was to show how different the simple mathematical view was from reality then why not frame the narrative around the million-man civil rights marches or a nun defending an orphanage from racoons? Opting to overlay the theory with such a terrible event was clearly an attempt to taint by association. This would be acceptable had there been a causal link made between the two (such as in his other work, The Trap), but the point was (again, in my opinion) to show how different theory was from practice to highlight the complexity of human interaction. For a person who has produced so many pieces on press manipulation this is somewhat hypocritical.There was also more than a passing amount of personal attacks, from the hint no one believed the theory at first (though see above as to why) to ridiculing his trip to find the source of AIDS while the Congo civil war still raged. It was framed to suggest not only that the theory may be in some way responsible for genocide, but that its creator was some sort of emotionless robot.
For a documentary maker who’s major target has been the over-simplification of the news media, politics and human behaviour, the piece was very good at simplifying and falsely representing the whole branch of evolutionary biology. To demonstrate how such simple explanations for human are wrong, it ignores half a century of research into the topic of human cooperation. Had the show been framed in history, i.e. about the birth and growth of theories this would have been acceptable, but the purpose it to show how certain ideologies have “taken over” or influenced our society over the decades. Human cooperation as a topic could be (and deserves to be, BBC, if your reading) a series on its own and I wouldn’t expect something such as this to delve into the matter fully, but if you’re going to attack 50 years of research as least suggest the modelling of human behaviour has extended itself a little. Kin selection is the easiest to pick on as every day experience tells us humans don’t just help there kin, QED its all hokum, yet had they included other contemporaries of Hamilton they would have found a menagerie of researchers developing theories of altruism. Concepts such as mutualism, where individuals cooperate because they both benefit (we need to work together or the bears will kill us both), reciprocity, where we aid someone with the expectation of future assistance (Help me find some bear cubs and I’ll help you do the same tomorrow) or competitive altruism, where helping others shows how amazing you are (here, have this bear pelt, I have dozens) were around and generating great interest. All have a gene-view perspective and all contribute to our understanding of altruism.
I am not a number
Adam Curtis is clearly against the notion that human behaviour can be explained by any coherent theory, and he has approached this topic before in “The Trap”. The difference between that series and this was the former had a clear focus; how treating human beings as rational agents, the essence of a certain branch of game theory, is doomed to failure and in this he was correct. Therational agent approach to economics as exemplified by the Chicago school and Milton Friedmanites of this world was fundamentally flawed because humans are not rational entities in a neo-liberal sense, and where ‘The Trap’ succeeded was in drawing parallels between a mathematical model, it’s policy effects and how policies based on this assumption had disastrous consequences; This is what happens if you fail to take an holistic account of human agency. Here though he loses his way. The show is not so much an argument against a theory as it is the musings of someone who simply doesn’t like what they hear. All that is offered as proof against what Curtis sees as a destructive perspective on life is a series of gruesome images and some fun fact about imperial Belgium
If one replaces rB>C with “would you save your child over a stranger’s child” suddenly the cold and robotic mathematics appear less so, equally for “Would you lend £10 to a friend of stranger” “would you try to impress an attractive female in a bar“. These are all aspects of human behaviour that effectively express the “gene-eye view”: We love our children, because the infants of parents who didn’t give a shit died; We form friendships and care about our friends, because individuals who didn’t have alliances had no one to help them; we want to impress a potential sexual partner, because males that didn’t lost out to the strutting posers who did. Fundamentally Curtis makes the same error many do when introduced to this topic, to assume that because proximate behaviour has a billion year old ultimate cause, the latter fundamentally detracts from the former. That understanding the evolutionary cause of a behaviour somehow removes the qualia of its experience. That because there is a biological, describable, reason for both the good and bad aspects of human sociality, this reduces us to nothing but machines.