Published on 25 Feb 2015
What is comparative advantage? And why is it important to trade? This video guides us through a specific example surrounding Tasmania — an island off the coast of Australia that experienced the miracle of growth in reverse. Through this example we show what can happen when a civilization is deprived of trade, and show why trade is essential to economic growth.
In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s dive right in with an example from our new friends, Bob and Ann.
August 24, 2015
July 18, 2015
At The Scientist, Ian Tattersall describes the early days of anthropological studies:
Before the mid-1900s, human fossils were for the most part studied and pronounced upon by specialists in human anatomy. Based in medical schools, these researchers were exquisitely attuned to variation within Homo sapiens, but were largely unconcerned with the riotous diversity of species out there in the living world. Ignorant of taxonomic norms, they branded newly discovered hominin fossils with new Latin names, much as they gave each of their children a separate name. In this way, throughout the first half of the 20th century the rapidly expanding paleoanthropological literature became littered with formal names — even though many of the freshly unearthed fossils actually belonged to species that had already been described.
I write about this crucible of discovery and folly in my new book, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack.
The haphazard application of species names to every new hominin fossil was a practice that could not continue indefinitely. And in 1950 the ornithologist Ernst Mayr, one of the fathers of the Evolutionary Synthesis, took it upon himself to lecture the paleoanthropologists on the error of their ways. The Synthesis was an elaboration of evolutionary theory that saw most evolutionary change as the gradual accumulation, via natural selection, of small genetic innovations within ancestor-descendant sequences. So Mayr depicted human evolution as the slow modification of a single lineage culminating in Homo sapiens. Among the fifteen hominin genera then described, Mayr said, there was in reality only one: our own genus, Homo. What’s more, the Homo lineage contained only three species: Homo transvaalensis (an early biped) had given rise to Homo erectus, which in turn had evolved into Homo sapiens. Acutely aware that their nomenclatural proliferation lacked any theoretical justification, the paleoanthropologists capitulated. For half a century thereafter, most of them viewed human evolution as a single-minded progression from primitiveness to sapient perfection driven by natural selection: an idea that fit rather well with the undeniable fact that only one hominin exists in the world today.
From the beginning, though, it was obvious that Mayr’s scheme was a huge oversimplification. As fossil discoveries rapidly continued to accumulate, his single lineage began to bulge at the seams. A new image of hominin evolution began to develop.
February 26, 2015
Real Clear Science has an excerpt from Yuval Harari’s recent book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
Scientists also agree that about 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass.
When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? There are two conflicting theories. The ‘Interbreeding Theory’ tells a story of attraction, sex and mingling. As the African immigrants spread around the world, they bred with other human populations, and people today are the outcome of this interbreeding.
For example, when Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm. (Archaeologists have discovered the bones of Neanderthals who lived for many years with severe physical handicaps, evidence that they were cared for by their relatives.) Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.
According to the Interbreeding Theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens. They are a mixture of Sapiens and Neanderthals. Similarly, when Sapiens reached East Asia, they interbred with the local Erectus, so the Chinese and Koreans are a mixture of Sapiens and Erectus.
The opposing view, called the ‘Replacement Theory’ tells a very different story – one of incompatibility, revulsion, and perhaps even genocide. According to this theory, Sapiens and other humans had different anatomies, and most likely different mating habits and even body odours. They would have had little sexual interest in one another. And even if a Neanderthal Romeo and a Sapiens Juliet fell in love, they could not produce fertile children, because the genetic gulf separating the two populations was already unbridgeable. The two populations remained completely distinct, and when the Neanderthals died out, or were killed off, their genes died with them. According to this view, Sapiens replaced all the previous human populations without merging with them. If that is the case, the lineages of all contemporary humans can be traced back, exclusively, to East Africa, 70,000 years ago. We are all ‘pure Sapiens’.
A lot hinges on this debate. From an evolutionary perspective, 70,000 years is a relatively short interval. If the Replacement Theory is correct, all living humans have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible. But if the Interbreeding Theory is right, there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.
In recent decades the Replacement Theory has been the common wisdom in the field. It had firmer archaeological backing, and was more politically correct (scientists had no desire to open up the Pandora’s box of racism by claiming significant genetic diversity among modern human populations). But that ended in 2010, when the results of a four-year effort to map the Neanderthal genome were published. Geneticists were able to collect enough intact Neanderthal DNA from fossils to make a broad comparison between it and the DNA of contemporary humans. The results stunned the scientific community.
It turned out that 1-4 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern populations in the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant. A second shock came several months later, when DNA extracted from the fossilised finger from Denisova was mapped. The results proved that up to 6 per cent of the unique human DNA of modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.
November 20, 2014
Tia Ghose discusses some recent findings on the sexual aggression of male chimpanzees and (given that humans are closely related to chimps) looks for parallels in human behaviour:
Male chimpanzees that wage a campaign of sustained aggression against females sire more offspring than their less violent counterparts, new research finds.
The results suggest that such nasty behavior from males evolved because it gave the meanest males a reproductive advantage, said study co-author Ian Gilby, a primatologist at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
This chimpanzee behavior could also provide some insight into the roots of sexual aggression in men.
“It is possible that in our early ancestors there may have been an adaptive value to male aggression against females,” Gilby said.
Though the findings are in chimpanzees, they lend credence to the notion that male sexual aggression in humans may have some genetic or evolutionary basis, Gilby said.
On the other hand, drawing parallels can be perilous. Humans diverged from chimpanzees at least 7 million years ago, and the human mating system looks very different from chimps’ violent, multi-male, multi-female system. Humans form pair bonds and have varied and complex mating strategies and behaviors. And most men aren’t brutes to their partners.
“We definitely don’t mean to say this excuses or fully explains violence in this way in humans,” Gilby said.
The study’s findings may provide fodder for a long-standing debate in evolutionary biology about whether rape and sexual aggression are evolutionarily advantageous in humans, said William McKibbin, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan–Flint, who was not involved in the study. No studies in humans have ever shown that rape increases reproductive success, he added.
November 15, 2014
I wanted to title this post “Have dick, will travel”, but I decided it wasn’t the most dignified way to introduce this topic:
The reason men refuse to ask for directions when lost isn’t down to pig-headed stubbornness, but rather a hard-wired evolutionary instinct which has developed so they can, err, get more sex — say anthropologists.
Students with clipboards from the University of Utah interviewed dozens of members of the Twe and Tjimba tribes in northwest Namibia. They found that men who did better spatial tasks, unsurprisingly, travelled farther — but also had children with more women.
Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan said the data supports the hypothesis that men have evolved a greater spatial ability to “benefit reproductively from getting more mates” and “ranging farther is one way they do this.”
Compared with other cognitive differences between the sexes, such as cultural differences in maths skills, the difference in spatial skills is much larger, found the research.
November 7, 2014
That’s another concept that I’m sure must have an eighteen-syllable descriptor in German but doesn’t have a matching name in English. David Friedman has a great illustration of this in the criticism of a nineteenth century anthropologist by Stephen Jay Gould:
The late Stephen Jay Gould was both an evolutionary biologist and a popular essayist. In the book The Mismeasure of Man he argued that scientists unconsciously manipulate their data to fit their preexisting prejudices. As evidence he cited the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physical anthropologist who assembled a large collection of skulls from many parts of the world and measured their cranial capacity in an attempt to answer questions about racial differences. According to Gould, Morton skewed his data in various ways to fit his racial beliefs.
I have just read an article by a group of modern anthropologists who went over Morton’s data and remeasured many of the skulls that Morton measured — something Gould did not do. The authors concluded that most of Gould’s criticisms were poorly supported or falsified. The errors that Gould reported in Morton’s analysis resulted from errors by Gould, not by Morton. Morton did make some mistakes in his work, but they were in the opposite direction from his biases.
The obvious conclusion, not stated by the authors of the article, is that Gould’s central claim was correct. Scientists sometimes bias their work to fit their preconceptions. As Gould demonstrated by doing so.
October 1, 2014
Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.
A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.
English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.
Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.
February 14, 2014
Readers who are all too familiar with popular works on anthropology may be interested to learn that some recent investigations have involved a completely novel approach. The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail. But enough primitive people remain for the purposes of science. Books continue to multiply, and when the last tribe has resorted to the singing of hymns in self-defense, there are still the poor of the backstreets. These are perpetually pursued by questionnaire, camera, and phonograph; and the written results are familiar to us all.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
November 20, 2013
Christopher Taylor linked to this New York Times article by John Tierney about a recent issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society which was devoted to the study of female aggression:
The existence of female competition may seem obvious to anyone who has been in a high-school cafeteria or a singles bar, but analyzing it has been difficult because it tends be more subtle and indirect (and a lot less violent) than the male variety. Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.
Stigmatizing female promiscuity — a.k.a. slut-shaming — has often been blamed on men, who have a Darwinian incentive to discourage their spouses from straying. But they also have a Darwinian incentive to encourage other women to be promiscuous. Dr. Vaillancourt said the experiment and other research suggest the stigma is enforced mainly by women.
“Sex is coveted by men,” she said. “Accordingly, women limit access as a way of maintaining advantage in the negotiation of this resource. Women who make sex too readily available compromise the power-holding position of the group, which is why many women are particularly intolerant of women who are, or seem to be, promiscuous.”
Indirect aggression can take a psychological toll on women who are ostracized or feel pressured to meet impossible standards, like the vogue of thin bodies in many modern societies. Studies have shown that women’s ideal body shape is to be thinner than average — and thinner than what men consider the ideal shape to be. This pressure is frequently blamed on the ultrathin female role models featured in magazines and on television, but Christopher J. Ferguson and other researchers say that it’s mainly the result of competition with their peers, not media images.
October 18, 2013
I can’t improve on Joey DeVilla‘s introduction to this story: “I don’t think that the skull of homo erectus throws the story of evolution into disarray. However, I do know for a fact that SAYING ‘homo erectus’ in a high school classroom will most certainly put it in disarray.” Here’s the Guardian article by Ian Sample:
The spectacular fossilised skull of an ancient human ancestor that died nearly two million years ago in central Asia has forced scientists to rethink the story of early human evolution.
Anthropologists unearthed the skull at a site in Dmanisi, a small town in southern Georgia, where other remains of human ancestors, simple stone tools and long-extinct animals have been dated to 1.8m years old.
Experts believe the skull is one of the most important fossil finds to date, but it has proved as controversial as it is stunning. Analysis of the skull and other remains at Dmanisi suggests that scientists have been too ready to name separate species of human ancestors in Africa. Many of those species may now have to be wiped from the textbooks.
The latest fossil is the only intact skull ever found of a human ancestor that lived in the early Pleistocene, when our predecessors first walked out of Africa. The skull adds to a haul of bones recovered from Dmanisi that belong to five individuals, most likely an elderly male, two other adult males, a young female and a juvenile of unknown sex.
David Lordkipanidze at the Georgian National Museum, who leads the Dmanisi excavations, said: “If you found the Dmanisi skulls at isolated sites in Africa, some people would give them different species names. But one population can have all this variation. We are using five or six names, but they could all be from one lineage.”
If the scientists are right, it would trim the base of the human evolutionary tree and spell the end for names such as H rudolfensis, H gautengensis, H ergaster and possibly H habilis.
The fossil is described in the latest issue of Science.
“Some palaeontologists see minor differences in fossils and give them labels, and that has resulted in the family tree accumulating a lot of branches,” said White. “The Dmanisi fossils give us a new yardstick, and when you apply that yardstick to the African fossils, a lot of that extra wood in the tree is dead wood. It’s arm-waving.”
September 14, 2013
Anthropologists assure us that wherever we find man he speaks. Chimpanzee-lovers notwithstanding, no animal other than man is capable of laughter. And, although some undiscovered tribe in the Brazilian jungle might conceivably provide an exception tomorrow, every present-day society uses alcohol, as have the majority of those of the past. I am not denying that we share other important pleasures with the brute creation, merely stating the basic fact that conversation, hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way.
There is a choice of conclusions from this. One would be that no such healthy linkage exists in the case of other drugs: a major reason for being on guard against them. More to the point, the collective social benefits of drinking altogether (on this evidence) outweigh the individual disasters it may precipitate. A team of American investigators concluded recently that, without the underpinning provided by alcohol and the relaxation it affords, Western society would have collapsed irretrievably at about the time of the First World War. Not only is drink here to stay; the moral seems to be that when it goes, we go too.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
July 15, 2013
Brendan O’Neill on a modern phenomenon:
Normally when a white, middle-class, well-educated Brit wants to rub shoulders with a noble savage, he heads off to Kenya to gawk at the Masai dutifully dancing for his chin-stroking entertainment, or he spends a couple of weeks in Palestine to watch brown people picking olives under the yoke of Israeli intimidation. Not Owen Jones. The Independent’s Left-wing columnist has found an altogether cheaper way to mix with earthy, “authentic” tribes: by hopping on a train to Durham and spending a few hours in the company of that grizzled, largely defeated caste of people known as Miners.
At the weekend Mr Jones spoke at the Durham Miners’ Gala, and the whole thing revealed how anthropological the modern radical Left has become, the extent to which youthful Leftists now treat working-class people as exotic creatures in a political zoo to be photographed and patted. The gala was embarrassingly described by that high priest of chattering-class values, Giles Fraser, as being all about “the banners, the bands and the beer”, a means for former mining communities “colourfully to proclaim [their] nobility”. They’re the salt of the earth, these rough-handed northerners, and no mistake! According to a Sky News report, Mr Jones “spoke for the people”. What people? The London-based media professionals he hobnobs with?
Mr Jones and his media friends treated Durham’s miners the same way other middle-class youngsters treat villagers they happen upon in a rural bit of Rwanda: as intriguingly and effortlessly decent, noble creatures who one must simply be photographed standing next to. They tweeted pics of themselves with these cute creatures. In his speech, Mr Jones referred to the miners as “ordinary working people” (ordinary: “regular, normal, customary” — OED) and said these poor, grafting folk are often “faceless, forgotten, ignored”. Not any more — now they’re all over Twitter and Facebook and are having their nobility celebrated in the Guardian, courtesy of their middle-class, Dickensian patrons down in London.
It’s so extraordinarily patronising. To these anthropological daytrippers, Durham is little more than a Potemkin village, existing primarily as a symbol of something or other rather than as a real place. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Mr Jones takes this borderline caring/haughty approach to working people. After all, by his own admission his entire career in radical journalism was triggered by feelings of pity for the working classes, or, as he calls them, “the vulnerable” who inhabit “conquered” communities.
March 21, 2013
“Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk.”
By way of Five Feet of Fury, an interesting story about challenging some very basic assumptions about psychology:
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game” — along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma — to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery — the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
[. . .]
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”
The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences — particularly in economics and psychology — relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?
A notion that’s popped up several times in the last couple of months is that the easy access to willing test subjects (university students) introduces a strong bias to a lot of the tests, yet until recently the majority of studies disregarded the possibility that their test results were unrepresentative of the general population.
January 28, 2013
ESR reviews a new book about hackers:
My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.
Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.
Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.
[. . .]
Far too much of the book exhibits this kind of theory-induced blindness. I am inclined to blame not Coleman for it but rather the people who trained and indoctrinated her in how to think and write like a ‘real’ anthropologist. If Coding Freedom is really the sort of book anthropology wants its bright young things to emit, the field is in desperately bad shape — far too inward-looking, over-abstract, mired in self-reference and tail-chasing, obsessed with politicized modes of non-explanation. I would actually prefer the theory that Coleman is a dimwit who has emitted a sort of unintentional parody of real anthropology if I could make myself believe it, but I can’t — her best moments seem too lucid for that.
She is very perceptive, for example, about the central role of hacker humor in promoting social bonding and affirming the culture’s values (I’ve explored this theme myself). Her ground-level reporting about the emotional atmosphere of hacker conferences and demonstrations is acute. Her discussion of how hackers as a culture have bootstrapped themselves to a state of legal literacy in order to fight their corner of the intellectual-property wars gives one of the gifts that ethnography should — to help us see how remarkable and interesting are practices we might otherwise take for granted.
There is even one significant thing I learned from this book, or at least learned to see in a new way. I hadn’t noticed before how ritualized the practice of writing damning comments about bad code is. Coleman is right that they display a level of pointed and deliberate rudeness that their authors would not employ face-to-face, and she is right about how and why the culture gives permission for this behavior.
January 23, 2013
Even if we have the technology to do it, there are lots of ways for the experiment to go very wrong (without going the Jurassic Park route):
…could they be taught in our schools? Who would rear the first generation? Would human parents find this at all rewarding? Do they have enough impulse control to move freely in human society? How happy would they be with such a limited number of peers? What public health issues would be involved and how would we learn about those issues in advance? What would happen the first time a Neanderthal kills a human child? Carries and transmits a contagious disease? By the way, how much resistance would the Neanderthals have to modern diseases?
What kinds of “human rights” would we issue to them? Would we end up treating them better than lab chimpanzees? Would they be covered by ACA and have emergency room rights?
Unlike the debate over recreating extinct animal species like the dodo or the passenger pigeon, Neanderthals were close relations to modern humans: under most of our ethical and moral systems, they would be people, not animals. Unless we’re so debased that we can countenance restarting the Nazi experiment that we forcefully terminated in 1945, we could not treat neoNeanderthals as anything other than intelligent, self-directing, self-owning beings. By bringing them back from the dead, we’d be taking on the moral requirement to maintain them and sustain them.
We have no way of knowing if a group of neoNeanderthals could peacefully co-exist with humanity, and no way of finding that out without running the experiment. That’s not a decision that can or should be taken by a single person or a group of scientists at a university. This wanders too close to “playing god” of old science fiction stories: those stories rarely turned out well for the non-gods.